The preseason hype machine was in full force in Eugene as the Oregon Ducks got ready to defend their Pac 12 title. Talk of a national title and Heisman Trophy campaigns abounded, but the talk may have been slightly off the mark, at least on the Heisman front. While the media was enamored with the explosive talent of De’Anthony Thomas in August, it has been Kenjon Barner who has starred for the Ducks.
Barner, listed as the starting running back for Oregon, has been a playmaker at running back for Chip Kelly. Through seven games, Barner has rushed for 870 yards, averaging 124 yards per game. That ranks him second in the Pac 12 behind Jonathan Franklin of the UCLA Bruins and 11th in the nation. His 12 rushing touchdowns rank second in the country and he’s shown an ability to break the big play, averaging six yards per carry or better in four games this season.
He’s also been consistent as the Ducks featured back this season. He has led the team in carries in six of seven games while leading them in rushing in six of seven as well. He’s broken 100-yards rushing four times while scoring in five of the Ducks’ seven games.
Meanwhile, De’Anthony Thomas has been largely forgettable this season. Since conference play started September 22 against the Arizona Wildcats, DAT has failed to break a play longer than 20 yards. He’s only found the end zone twice in the Ducks’ four conference games and hasn’t broken the 100-yard mark for all-purpose yards yet during Oregon’s conference schedule.
The differences in production was put into stark contrast for these two playmakers in Thursday’s game against the Arizona State Sun Devils. Barner once again received the bulk of the action, carrying the ball 16 times, gaining 143 yards and scoring three touchdowns. He opened the scoring for Oregon by breaking a 71-yard scamper right down the throat of the ASU defense, going untouched and running away from the Sun Devil secondary.
Thomas on the other hand was shut down all night. He rushed the ball 12 times for just 25 yards, caught three passes for four yards, and failed to find the end zone for the second time this season. His longest play from scrimmage on the night was for just seven yards. For a player who averages a touchdown every eight touches in his career, it was one of the poorest showings for Thomas since he’s been in Eugene.
It’s understandable for Black Mamba to be slowing down, though. Everyone remembers the explosive performance he had in the Rose Bowl against the Wisconsin Badgers last season (2 carries, 155 yards, two touchdowns). During his freshman season, Thomas was a touchdown waiting to happen, gashing defenses for huge gains and generating the buzz that he rode all the way to Heisman consideration this summer.
But opposing defenses saw all those highlight reels too. With a year’s worth of film on him, Thomas has been bottled up by Pac 12 defenses who are guarding themselves from becoming another victim of DAT’s homerun ability. So far, it has stifled Thomas and kept him from breaking loose like many of us thought he would this season.
But that extra attention for Thomas has opened up the offense for other playmakers to step up. Barner has obviously benefited from being the forgotten man, racking up yards on the ground like they’re about to be rationed. Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota has blossomed with the defense looking for Thomas, making plays with his arm and his legs, which he showed off against ASU with an 86-yard run to paydirt in the second quarter.
Other role players have also enjoyed the open field that Thomas’ reputation has provided them. Freshman Byron Marshall has racked up over 300 yards on the season with limited touches, averaging more than five yards a carry. Colt Lyerla, listed as a tight end, has even enjoyed some big runs when he motions into the backfield while defenses follow the Black Mamba, averaging nearly six yards per carry.
So while the guy everyone thought would be lighting up opposing defenses has been quiet this season, the Ducks are still rolling, averaging 317 yards rushing per game. Thomas may lose out on the personal accolades as he learns to handle the defensive attention, but the threat of DAT is making life easier for the rest of the Ducks offense.