Eugene, Ore. LaMichael James ran for 219 yards and three touchdowns, and No. 8 Oregon beat UCLA, 49-31, in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game Friday night for the Ducks’ third straight conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Rick Neuheisel tipped his hat to the UCLA fans in his last game as coach. The former Bruins quarterback was fired this week after four seasons with his alma mater.
While the Bruins (6-7) played with passion for their outgoing coach and kept it closer than many thought they would, it was not enough to overcome the Ducks (11-2), who head to a BCS bowl for the third straight season.
Darron Thomas threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns, becoming Oregon’s career leader with 63 TD passes.
James became the first rusher in Pac-12 history with three straight 1,500-yard seasons. He moved into a tie with USC’s LenDale White (2003-05) for second on the league’s career rushing TD list with 52.
Neuheisel, fired following last weekend’s 50-0 loss to No. 9 Southern California, hugged quarterback Kevin Prince as time ran out.
His dismissal was part of a wave of coaching moves in the conference. Around the time Neuheisel’s dismissal was announced, 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.
Oregon will play the winner of the first Big 10 championship game Saturday between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.
The heavily favored Ducks scored on their first series when James ran 30 yards for a touchdown. James 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 Thomas and ran 35 yards for a touchdown. Neuheisel pumped his first 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 Prince’s flea-flicker to Nelson Rosario for a 37-yard touchdown.
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.
James added a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 28-14 before Darron 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.
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.
Rosario pulled down a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown pass from Prince with less than two minutes to play. Prince completed 13 of 26 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
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.