Saturday, December 3, 2011

With LaMichael James, Ducks Fly but Needs To Win Big One

When LaMichael James was putting on weight in the offseason — as much as 20 pounds — he listened to heavy talk from detractors that he seemed significantly slower and sluggish. The best running back arguably in the nation famously elevated his stardom, but even more so, he became stronger and mightier, built with physique and stamina – not to mention his quickness.

Suddenly, he is the emblem of the university. So were the electrified fans at thrillingly a rambunctious stadium in a culture of a preoccupied sports fest town, where football has mounted on the pedestal. If we can insert clarity, judging his eye-catching, career-building, money-making audition in the inaugural Pac 12 championship game, he’d be regarded as the top running back in April’s draft.

He also now qualifies as the most incredibly electric and dynamic athlete in college football, an all-purpose tailback accessible of transforming a hapless team’s culture that has been deterred by inadequacies. The fireworks were fired, following the first ever championship game that brightened the sky in Eugene, Oregon.

By the end of the night, there were roses and more roses, dozens upon dozens of them to kick off a celebration. The championship game trophy was awarded to the University of Oregon, with a victory that validated the Ducks season. All along, the Ducks secured a place in the Rose Bowl. Not that such a bid would be disregarded in a sense, realizing that Oregon is the far more dominant powerhouses of the Pac 12, easily one of the deepest conferences in the nation. In what might have very well been his last time playing at Autzen Stadium, the fourth-year junior who is set to graduate this school year rhinoed his way past the defenders.

It was a night, not long after James became the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and scoring, that he carried 25 times for 219 yards and three touchdowns in an awesome performance. It was primal screams, heard loudly and decibels in a stadium that pushed a raucous environment with life and excitement.

This one was all about James, a Heisman hopeful after being a runner-up last season who continues to be a star running back within an elite conference. He rolled all over UCLA, he sprinted his way to the end zone several times and legitimized that he’s a football star, ready to translate his abilities on the pro level – now destined to be selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft if he declares.

The unique quickness, explosiveness and vision are what separates James from the rest of the Pac 12 running backs, as the fastest if not the most dangerous rusher in the country. This is why the Ducks punched their ticket to their third straight BCS game, decisively defeating the Bruins 49-31 at home in front of a sellout crowd that went nuts. The folks of football realized it, probably because they witnessed James run past the Bruins defense in his neon-green uniform, looking stylish in those ridiculous uniforms that Nike unveils every so often.

Every time he trotted to the sideline, following one of his dazzling touchdown runs, the fans sitting near by screamed feverishly, rooting him on in his flawless rush attack on the night the game had many implications. It always has been, and it always will be fun to watch James, a well-rounded athlete who is irresistible and too fast to slow down. Understand this, though: You can’t stop him – you can only contain a specimen, a beast quicker than the average star running back in the nation.

He is, and until he decides to leave behind his collegiate career for his eventual employment days in the NFL – which he probably will – he’ll be the best player in the nation at his position. That said, if he does leave for the NFL at the end of this season, he’ll enter the draft among one of the well-respected prospects. But for now, he can potentially lead his team to win the biggest game, in hopes of capturing the honorable prize at the Granddaddy of them all. The proudest man on this night was head coach Chip Kelly, who is 0-2 in January, devoid of a BCS title in two tries.

“We’re just so excited to represent this university in the Rose Bowl,” said head coach Chip Kelly proudly. “Now we’re going to drink some Dr. Pepper and mail our Christmas presents with UPS.”

Drink all the Dr. Pepper you guys want. It is well-deserving. Mail all the Christmas presents you guys want. It is worth sending gifts to those in support.

Nothing would be worth a debate if James, a star in the eighth-ranked Oregon’s explosive spread, joining this year’s all-conference football team, is top-ranked in nearly every category. He is, after all, the national leader in rushing average and dictated the game’s complexion Friday night. He is, by all accounts, the focal point of not only Oregon but college football and, quite understandably, James is mentally and fundamentally ready to convert into the pros. That is because he’s agile and fearless, with a rational sense of the game.

“All-in-all, I think it’s been a strong season,” Scott said before the game. “The Pac-12 and the SEC are the only conferences to have three teams in the top 10. The conference is clearly establishing itself as a perennial, elite football conference.”

From the start, the Ducks were a bit careless, lacking a sense of urgency, having trouble with ball security and seemed uninspired but they turned it around with James’ surging speed. On the field, he didn’t quit. The Ducks didn’t quit. This was all some crazy night for UCLA, and increasingly to extend the horror, the Bruins turned it over four times. As the game ended, this is where Rick Neuheisel, fired last Monday by UCLA, pumped his fist and gazed at the ground, shouting in solidarity after Nelson Rosario made a one-handed touchdown catch in the final two minutes.

The ultimate confidence, aside from the classy ending for Neuheisel, came from James’ brilliance and he couldn’t be denied. Only now, the stakes become higher than before, and expectedly, he can lead the Ducks to victory in what would be one of the nicest, heartfelt wins. They’ll face Wisconsin or Michigan State, two well-balanced Big Ten teams, but surely enough – the Ducks will be favorites to win it all in Pasadena 30 days from now, giving each team more than enough time to improve and prepare for a big game. This time, of course, it’s now or never. The biggest game of James’ collegiate career awaits him Jan. 1st, 2012. It’s the highest ramifications, the highest stakes on the brightest stage, a national audience to watch a traditional bowl game on New Years Day. Thirty days from now, as he can rest and work in preparations, he’ll be in shape and durable for the challenge. This is no longer about individual achievements or the fastest runner in the country. This is about delivering and prevailing on the national stage.

“They just kept their eye on the prize and nothing will knock them down, said Kelly after Oregon trounced UCLA. “That’s something to be proud of… It’s about living in the moment and being a part of this group, and I’m really, really proud about what this group accomplished.”

Before the game, however, the Bruins never counted themselves out although they were the underdog in postseason history, but failed stopping an early fourth-and-1 that would have shifted momentum. The Bruins had no answer for Kelly’s offense on fourth down for much of the game.

“Those are huge plays because they’re giant momentum changers,” Neuheisel said.”Oregon is a very talented team.”

Yes sir. Oregon is very talented. Don’t forget that James is very talented.

If the Ducks can maintain momentum a month away from the game, then it is fair to assume that Oregon will win the Rose Bowl. If this team could bounce back from a heartbreaker after USC defeated the Ducks in their first ever home loss under Kelly, then they can win any team, despite the sloppy and poor start in the championship game. Everyone knows James is, once again, poised and a skilled running back and has put in the effort to become the first player in conference history to have three 1,500-plus yard rushing seasons. And then came this, the title game where he surpassed Marcus Allen on the career rushing list and moved into second place on the Pac 12 rushing touchdowns list.

If anything had it not been for him, the Bruins may have pulled off the upset. The Ducks, though their offense was too much for the Bruins too handle, were inconsistent on both sides of the ball and gave up 31 points to UCLA on sloppy mistakes – a weakness that could have doomed them. You don’t even have to argue that James was the best player on the field. It was his versatility and durability that slaughtered the Bruins.

Mostly, this was the superstar carrying the Ducks in critical moments, rising to the occasion as quarterback Darron Thomas became the school’s career leader in touchdown passes (63) and had a career-long run of 39 yards. He certainly wasn’t aiming to be the hero, nor was he the hero but he threw three touchdown passes on 20 of 36 passing for 219 yards. If nothing else was imposing, he had a touchdown run that came on an option play well-designed by Kelly and his high-powered offense.

The bad thing is, the Ducks are 0-15 against top 15 out-of-conference teams under Kelly. They’ve been here before. Kelly has been here before. LaMichael has been here before. It’s now time to win it all, when it matters the most.

The Pac 12 heavyweights are the Ducks, but they still need lots of work.