By Rob Moseley
Two mainstays of the Oregon offense, junior running back De’Anthony Thomas and junior right tackle Jake Fisher, watched Saturday’s game against Washington State from the sideline. They were in uniform, but their helmets were safely stowed away for much of the evening, lest they have the impulse to enter the game against team orders.
Thomas and Fisher are two of the biggest reasons for the Ducks’ success in the run game the last three years. They were spelled Saturday in part by two true freshmen. And you hardly could have noticed a difference, during Oregon's 62-38 victory.
And in the backfield, Thomas Tyner nearly enjoyed his first career 100-yard game, getting to 101 yards and two touchdowns on six carries, before losing two yards on his seventh and final carry of the night.
“With De’Anthony being out and me having to step up, it’s a huge opportunity,” Tyner said after the fourth straight game in which Thomas didn’t take an offensive snap, due to an ankle injury. “Not a lot of freshmen get a chance like this.”
Sophomore Byron Marshall continued to get the bulk of the work in Thomas’ place, and he had a career night Saturday. Marshall ran 21 times for 192 yards and three touchdowns.
Perhaps the most revealing stat was a zero – the number of yards lost by Marshall on Saturday. Given the wealth of experience he’s gained the last four weeks, the hesitancy of a younger runner is all but gone.
“I’m just having fun,” Marshall said. “Finally putting my head down, letting loose and having fun.”
Thomas said after the game he was “just being on the safe side, that’s all.” He predicted he’ll return to action next week against UCLA.
In the meantime, Thomas said, “I feel like our guys can handle it.”
Can they ever. In four games since Thomas’ injury, the duo of Marshall and Tyner has averaged 31 carries for 207 yards, with 11 total touchdowns.
“You can’t put into words how important it is for the guys to get playing time, and in a situation where it’s important,” running backs coach Gary Campbell said. “They’re beginning to realize how good they can be.”
Indeed, the lessons provided by the last month’s playing time are both encouraging and revealing. They’ve taught Tyner he can excel at this level, but also showed him areas where he can improve, such as balance; in a couple instances Saturday, he lost his footing with minimal contact from the defense.
Those and other elements will continue to be a focus for Tyner in practice.
“If I keep working on those, it’ll add up to where I want to be,” he said.
Film review will be revealing in Hunt’s case. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost mostly withheld judgment on the freshman’s starting debut on the offensive line until watching film, figuring there will be some moments to applaud, and others to clean up.
Hunt said he found out in warmups Saturday he’d be starting in place of Fisher. Oregon’s veterans said the freshman performed well overall.
Frost may have needed to watch film to grade Hunt’s performance, but he had enough confidence to call plays that put the freshman in the spotlight against the Cougars. Marshall’s first-quarter touchdown was opened up by blocks from Hunt and Mana Greig, and Tyner ran behind Hunt on another one-yard score, in the second quarter.
“If you mess up, that’s your butt on the line,” Hunt said. “But our game plan was to pound the rock, and it worked out well.”
It did, despite the absence of two stalwarts on offense for Oregon, and with two true freshmen playing big roles in their absence.