Anyone following college football knows LaMichael James, the extraordinary running back at Oregon. It’s less likely they’re aware of Demaris Johnson, the Tulsa wide receiver and punt returner.
This past Saturday, each put together eye-popping performances, with James pacing the top-ranked Ducks to a 53-32 win over USC in a Pacific 10 Conference grudge match at the Coliseum, and Johnson leading the Golden Hurricane to a stunning 28-27 upset victory against host Notre Dame. In their own way, these two little guys with super-human speed, and ankle-breaking moves, set the tempo for their respective schools.
As expected, James, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound tailback, rushed for a game-best 239 yards and scored three touchdowns. James had a 42-yard gallop in the second quarter that gave the Ducks (8-0 and 5-0 in conference) a 15-10 edge, and later added a two-yard plunge in the third quarter that made it 43-32.
Rightly, James is better known, and is seen by many as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and also plays on an undefeated team that’s in line for a Bowl Championship Series title game appearance.
Added to the mix, James, a sophomore from Texas, is the nation’s leading rusher, having topped 200 yards in wins over Stanford (257) and Portland State (227).
The fewest yards James, who missed the season opener against New Mexico, has gained is 94 against Arizona State, but has surpassed the century mark against Washington State (136), Tennessee (134) and UCLA (123).
The Trojans (5-3 and 2-3 in conference) led 10-8 after the first quarter, but were outscored 21-7 in the second quarter.
Tulsa is an above-average team with a solid offense, but a porous pass defense. With Johnson, at 5-8 and 175 pounds, he makes them extremely dangerous, even against elite teams.
It was Johnson’s 59-yard punt return with 4:59 left in the third quarter that brought the Golden Hurricane to within 27-25, before Kevin Fitzgerald kicked the game-winning 27-yard field goal with 3:23 left.
“This is our biggest win, for sure,’’ said Johnson, a junior from Louisiana, who finished with 208 all-purpose yards. “We want to continue winning and hopefully win our conference, and go to a bowl.”
Tulsa (5-3 and 2-2 in Conference USA) drove 67 yards and consumed nine plays early in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead as quarterback G.J. Kinne, a transfer from Texas, found Johnson with a nine-yard pass.
True to form, the Golden Hurricane allowed the Fighting Irish (4-5) to move the ball at will through the air.
When Notre Dame starting quarterback Dayne Crist was knocked out of the contest after running for 29 yards midway through the opening quarter and sustaining a season-ending left knee injury, Tommy Rees entered, and despite throwing an interception late, tossed a freshman school-record four touchdowns.
The potential winning drive began at the Notre Dame 22-yard line, and Rees marched the Irish to the Tulsa 19, before John Flanders picked him off with 36 seconds showing.
The throw was ill-advised given that Michael Floyd, Notre Dame’s best wide receiver, was doubled teamed, and had Flanders in front of him.
This doesn’t take away from Rees’ 10-yard scoring pass to Floyd with 6:13 remaining in the first quarter that cut Tulsa’s lead to 9-6, or his five-yard scoring toss to Floyd with 8:10 left before the half that pushed Notre Dame’s lead to 20-12.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.