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QB Thomas rising as fast as Ducks after Stanford test

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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EUGENE, Ore. -- As he waited patiently for a brief on-camera interview, delirious green-and-yellow clad Oregon fans swarmed around Darron Thomas like bees in a hive.

A boy, perhaps 10 years old, put his hand out and patted Thomas on the back, and then turned to his buddy, shouting at the top of his lungs: "I just touched Darron Thomas!"

Thomas' popularity moved to a new realm on Saturday during No. 4 Oregon's 52-31 victory over No. 9 Stanford.

The sophomore who has made an entire city forget about Jeremiah Masoli, the quarterback who led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season, was sensational on his biggest stage so far.

Despite the extra intensity of a national broadcast, a showdown against a former high school rival (Stanford's Andrew Luck), and then a 21-3 first-quarter deficit -- Thomas performed with aplomb.

He was, dare we say it, Dennis Dixon-esque.

And that's important in Eugene, because it was Dixon who took Oregon to the dizzying height of No. 2 late in the 2007 season. Every Ducks fan remembers the painful night of Nov. 15, 2007 -- when Dixon's knee buckled at Arizona and Oregon's national title hopes fell by the wayside.

Dixon was beloved in a way perhaps no other Oregon player has been. He was the toast of the town, a Heisman Trophy candidate who put up staggering numbers with his arm and his feet.

Three years later, Thomas may be the quarterback who can put Oregon back in the national championship conversation. Saturday's victory may not move the Ducks all the way to No. 2, but it moves them in that direction.

Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott, who spent the afternoon touring the Willamette Valley -- catching the start of the Arizona State-Oregon State game in Corvallis before heading down to Eugene -- said the conference has emerged from the long shadow of USC, which dominated much of the past decade.

Oregon, Stanford, and others are earning national recognition.

"The country is focused on the depth of the conference in a way it hasn't before," Scott said.

In the case of Oregon, attempting to win the conference for the second year in a row, the country got its first real chance to evaluate Thomas.

"He's everything we want at quarterback," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.

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Thomas amassed 354 yards (238 passing, 117 rushing), threw for three scores and ran for one in front of a frenzied Autzen Stadium crowd of 59,818.

That rushing touchdown may have been his most impressive of the entire game. Rolling to his right, Thomas perfectly read the pitch key, made a sleight-of-hand fake that completely fooled Stanford safety Harold Bernard, and tied the game at 31-31 with 8:20 left in the third quarter.

Oregon's defense came to play after that, getting a key fumble recovery and return on Stanford's next possession. Soon after, Cliff Harris made a key interception. After that, the Ducks successfully dug in and held Stanford out of the end zone on a goal-line stand.

"The kids just don't quit," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "They don't blink. They chop wood and keep choppin' wood." They also shut the Cardinal out in the second half.

Stanford, unlike any opponent the Ducks have played so far, was a legitimate test. The Cardinal were as physical as advertised -- at least for a half. Luck was in command (29-of-46 for 341 yards) -- at least for a half.

But the pace of Oregon's no-huddle offense wore out the Stanford defense.

"He made all the right reads tonight," running back LaMichael James said of Thomas.

James was the beneficiary of that smart split-second decision making, rolling up a career-high 257 yards on 31 carries.

"Really, we just want to finish [games]," James said. "We practice how we play. We practice fast, so we play fast, too."

Dixon and Jonathan Stewart were a dynamic duo in 2007 -- one of the best in college football that year.

Thomas and James -- both sophomores -- are rising to that level.

When Stanford loaded the box and tried to take away James, Thomas hit receivers on the perimeter or found spaces to run himself. When the Cardinal defense shifted, he adjusted and put it in James' hands again.

"He's a phenomenal leader and a great competitor," James said of his teammate. "When someone scores a touchdown, Darron's the first one down there. He's more happy than the person who scored."

Thomas didn't panic after he threw an interception in the first quarter, or saw the Cardinal take a 21-3 lead.

"It was a big day," Thomas said. "Everybody was too hyped. Once everybody was calmed down, we got back to regular football and started doing the things we do best."

Luck, who began the week ranked No. 2 on Stiffarmtrophy.com's ranking of Heisman hopefuls, was a friend and foe of Thomas when they were high school stars in the Houston area.

Luck was the No. 4-rated pro-style quarterback in the nation coming out of Stratford High School, according to Rivals.com. Thomas was ranked sixth among dual-threat quarterbacks.

When they met on the field as seniors, Luck and his team beat Thomas' Aldine High School 34-24 on Oct. 5, 2007.

So Thomas was full of incentive Saturday. And he rose to the challenge.

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