No. 8 Oregon beats UCLA 49-31 for Pac-12 title
EUGENE, Ore.—There's at least one more celebration running back LaMichael James would like to take part in as a Duck. That's a victory in a BCS bowl game.
James, a junior, has been to the Rose Bowl before, and then last year he accompanied Oregon to the national championship. But so far during his tenure, Oregon has yet to win one of those big games.
He'll get another chance on Jan. 2, when Oregon goes to the Rose Bowl. The No. 8 Ducks earned the trip with a 49-31 victory over UCLA Friday night in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
Oregon will play the winner of the first Big Ten championship game Saturday between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. The bowl pairings will be formally announced on Sunday.
"We've got to," he said about winning in Pasadena. "We've got to compete. We might have lost, be we always compete. That's where it starts at."
James ran for 219 yards and three touchdowns against UCLA, setting a league record with three straight 1,500-yard seasons, will bolt to the NFL next season.
While James celebrated with his teammates after the victory, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel paused before Bruins fans at Autzen Stadium and tipped his hat.
The former UCLA quarterback was fired this week after four seasons at his alma mater.
"They can take my job," Neuheisel said, gesturing to the locker room as he left the field, "but they can't take those boys away from me."
Neuheisel was fired following last weekend's 50-0 loss to No. 9 Southern California, in what turned out to be a wave of coaching moves around the Pac-12. Arizona State let go of Dennis Erickson. Washington State parted ways with Paul Wulff, then quickly hired former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach a day later.
The Bruins were granted permission this week from the NCAA to accept a bowl invitation despite their losing record.
"We made it a game, at least for a time. I was thrilled that we got that kind of effort, given the events of the last week," Neuheisel said. "I just am excited for these guys. They get one more game. They'll find out where here soon."
With his three TDs, James moved into a tie with USC's LenDale White (2003-05) for second on the league's career rushing TD list with 52.
James ran 30 yards for a touchdown on Oregon's first drive. He went into the game as the nation's top running back with an average of 142.7 yards per game.
UCLA tied it when linebacker Patrick Larimore intercepted Darron Thomas and ran 35 yards for a touchdown. Neuheisel pumped his fist in celebration.
Thomas scored on a 10-yard keeper and then found true freshman tight end Colt Lyerla alone in the end zone with a 7-yard scoring pass to make it 21-7.
UCLA narrowed it with quarterback Kevin Prince's flea-flicker to Nelson Rosario for a 37-yard touchdown, but James added a 3-yard scoring run to make it 28-14 before Thomas connected with Daryle Hawkins for a 25-yard TD reception.
UCLA's Tyler Gonzalez kicked a 44-yard field goal to make it 37-17 at halftime.
Prince scored on a 1-yard run early in the third quarter to pull UCLA closer to the Ducks, but James answered with a 5-yard TD dash to make it 42-24.
A Heisman Trophy finalist last season as a sophomore, James fell out of the running for the most part this season because he missed two games with a dislocated right elbow.
There has been speculation all season last season that James may leave for the NFL after this season.
David Paulson caught a 22-yard touchdown pass midway through the third, which put Darron Thomas in front of Danny O'Neil (1991-94) for most passing TDs at Oregon. Thomas has 63.
Rosario pulled down a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown pass from Prince with less than two minutes to play. Rosario finished with six catches for 98 yards.
Prince completed 13 of 26 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Oregon was stung early in the game when dynamic true freshman De'Anthony Thomas fumbled after a hit by Tevin McDonald. Shaken up on the play, the versatile running back who earlier this week was named the Pac-12's co-freshman of the year on offense did not return.
Oregon coaches said after the game the injury was not serious.
The addition of Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12 paved the way for a league championship game this season. In previous years, the team with the best conference record claimed the title.
While No. 9 USC (10-2, 7-2) finished atop the Pac-12 South, the Trojans are ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, which put UCLA in the title game.
Because of Neuheisel's dismissal, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over if UCLA is selected to play in a bowl game. The NCAA granted permission to the Bruins to play in a bowl despite their losing record.
The Bruins have reached just one bowl in the past three seasons. Athletic director Dan Guerrero said he wants to reward the Bruins' 18 seniors by going to a bowl even while the program is in upheaval.
Oregon went to the 2010 Rose Bowl in its first season under Kelly, losing to Ohio State. Last season the Ducks went to the BCS championship, where they fell to Auburn.