For the third straight game, Oregon’s defense was forced to protect a one-score lead in the closing minutes of a hotly-contested football game. For the second straight week, the defense made the plays to win it.
This week’s hero was DJ James. The sophomore corner from Alabama recorded two interceptions on Saturday. The pair of picks were his first of his collegiate career, and the second sealed the deal in the closing seconds of No. 10 Oregon’s 34-31 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
“DJ stepped up,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said after the win, which moves his team to 3-1 in Pac-12 play. “He read it perfectly and broke on the ball. Big play. Game over.”
Teammate Verone McKinley III says James had “a great break” on the ball. That wasn’t by happenstance. James didn’t guess correctly like a soccer goalie defending a penalty kick. He had seen the formation and the route combination earlier in the game, and had been beaten. This time he was ready.
“In my head in my head I’m like I’m going to show a different look, so I can hopefully get a different outcome,” James said of how he processed UCLA backup QB Ethan Garber’s pass with 48 seconds left. “I just trusted my instincts. I trusted my teammates. I know we needed a play, so I put it on the line.”
Plays like that make heroes out of players, and depending upon how this season breaks out, James’ play might have saved Oregon’s College Football Playoff hopes and their Pac-12 title hopes too. We’ll know more on that in the coming weeks and months about that.
But, it was clear Oregon’s players and the fans who traveled to Pasadena knew how to receive James’ play. He was carried off the field by teammates and fans swarmed him near the East end zone.
“It was so surreal. It didn’t feel real at first,” James said of the postgame celebration. “I just took it all in and enjoyed the moment. I’m blessed to be here… I know how hard we worked to get here, and how much we wanted it.”
McKinley III, the leader of the defense, believes the play James made to close the game out signals the types of strides James has made since entering the starting lineup against Ohio State. He missed the first game of the season due to suspension for an off-the-field incident.
“That showed the growth of DJ,” McKinley III said of the second pick. “That’s just somebody who throughout the game is making adjustments.
“The guy works hard. He’s been getting better and better literally day-by-day from the mental side as well as the physical side. He’s one of the twitchiest guys on the team. He was prepared for it.”
James recorded his first interception off of UCLA starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the first quarter of the game to help flip the momentum. He also finished with a new career-best eight tackles.
It wasn’t many plays prior to the game-sealing interception that James was flagged for a defensive holding call to extend UCLA’s final touchdown drive. The Bruins cut the lead to three on the very next play. Pass rushing phenom Kayvon Thibodeaux was impressed by the way James stuck with it after facing adversity earlier in the quarter.
“He’s a fighter. A lot of guys on different teams would sort of give up and start playing soft,” he said. “But I know he’s going to protect that outside. He’s going to take away what they’re trying to take and he’s really smart.
“He really saved us. That play they sent a chip and they had the guard and the tackle on me, so I was getting a little beat up in there. For him to come in and have my back and the team’s back, it was greatness.”
Oregon will head back home next week a home tilt with Colorado. That game is set to kick off at 12:30 PM.
|Oregon Ducks – No. 5|
|Born:||December 15, 2000
South Los Angeles, California
|Height||6 ft 5 in (1.96 m)|
|Weight||258 lb (117 kg)|
|High school||Oaks Christian School (Westlake Village, California)|
|Career highlights and awards|
Kayvon Thibodeaux (TIB-uh-doe; born December 15, 2000) is an American football defensive end for the Oregon Ducks. He played high school football at Oaks Christian School in Los Angeles, where he was named USA Today‘s High School Football Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2018.
Following high school he decided to attend the University of Oregon to play college football for the Ducks, where he has since won several awards and honors such as being named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2019 and the defensive winner of the Morris Trophy in 2020.
Q. On facing adversity and injuries all season…
CRISTOBAL: Well, it wasn’t a lot of fun in pregame when we were getting ready and Alex Forsyth went down. We thought we would have him for today, but it’s been the theme for the year. Hopefully we’re putting a stop to it after this game. And some guys did come back.
It’s just this team – its leaders, its players – they’re a special, special bunch. They’re just resilient. They just keep coming. They truly believe there is no play, no circumstance, no bad call, no injury that we can’t overcome.
Q. On his reaction to the criticism of Anthony Brown…
CRISTOBAL: To me, watch the tape. Watch all the big plays he made. Watch all the right situations he put us in. Watch how much our offense was effective as he was just out there putting it all on the line all the time and having the support of our entire locker room. Look, this industry comes with its ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s chatter and it’s noise. And quite honestly, the only chatter we’re interested in is what we do every day together. We want to make our community proud, our university proud, but when it comes down to it we’re up there at 5 a.m. or until midnight doing whatever it takes so I’m really proud of these guys and proud of our quarterback.
Q. On Travis Dye’s toughness and performance with four touchdowns…
CRISTOBAL: What he had pregame is a migraine, and whoever’s had that before knows that can knock you out for a little bit. So when the trainer taps on your shoulder pregame and says, ‘Travis has a migraine,’ I was waiting for what went with that. He took his time and felt a heck of a lot better and was able to be ready to go. He went out there for the rest of warmups and did a great job. Those guys rallied around each other and continued to show belief and trust in each other and that’s the result of the game.
Q. On the fourth quarter defense, specifically DJ James…
CRISTOBAL: Our defense just keeps finding a way. Offensively we put them in a tough situation. Back-to-back situations where we just have to execute better. People want to say there was a throw but there are a lot of things that go into a pass play. Guys have to run the right routes, there’s got to be communication so it’s not a quarterback issue. But the defense in the second quarter and third quarter were telling each other ‘this is a fourth-quarter rep.’ You know, we’re a fourth-quarter team and we’re going to treat everything like the fourth quarter. Certainly, DJ stepped up and the guys up front put constant pressure on the quarterback. They got to him, whether they got him on the ground or affected him, it certainly made a tremendous impact. Then finally when they had to bring in their second quarterback and he was forced into a tough situation, DJ stepped up, read it perfectly, broke on the ball, made a big play, game over.
Q. What did it mean to you to be able to celebrate with the fans in LA?
CRISTOBAL: I would like for all attention and all narrative to be around our players, because there’s a lot of noise that surrounded this game that had to do with everything except our players and these are the guys that went out there and laid it on the line again and again and again. With guys down, hurt, banged up and found a way to get it done on the road after going through a lot. To me it’s all about them. Really grateful for our fans showing up and showing support. We fully expect that kind of support when we’re in Autzen Stadium next Saturday. A ton of noise, the great positive juice we’re known for at Autzen Stadium to get that game going the right way.
Q. On being one of the teams in the national discussion about the CFP…
CRISTOBAL: Honestly, I think we’re over that stuff. I’m completely being 100% transparent and honest. Our guys have a good grasp on knowing it’s about today. It’s about the next item on the agenda. It’s about the play that they’re playing. We realize that [process] works for us. When we get away from that process we create our own issues. That’s a big moment when, as a team, you can recognize that. Now we always have to remind ourselves and when we hop off the plane I walk by 400 people on my way over here and all 400 had this thing [held up phone in his hand] in their face because that’s the world we live in – and that’s okay, that’s part of it. I guess what I’m saying is that we’re very real. And there’s noise. That’s okay. That’s what makes college football awesome: the enthusiasm, the pageantry, But for the Ducks, it’s back to work: heal up, watch the film, get better, support each other, lift each other up and get ready for our next 1-0.
Q. On the passing game that included three players with at least 45 yards…
CRISTOBAL: It set the tone, especially in the middle eight and the third quarter when things really changed. We swung the momentum of the game. We were able to hang onto it at the end. Great job by the defense. In the third quarter they gave up seven yards or 11 yards – I could be off on that stat – but it wasn’t much. They ran the ball really well, we controlled the line of scrimmage. Anthony did a great job dissecting their coverages. The O-Line held up. We mixed and matched some guys and he made some unbelievable throws. Guys made some big catches. We put one on the ground we’d like to have back, but aside from that there’s a lot of positive progress in the passing game. We know because we see in practice every day how dangerous we can be in the passing game, so this is a great step in that direction and we expect to take another step this week in practice.
Q. On his vision for the passing game and sustaining this success…
CRISTOBAL: Number one, we want to make sure our best players have the best chance to make plays. Number two is what they play. They are a very complex defense. You saw they play trap coverage, a ton of zero, they’ll play some post safety cloud. I mean every single snap is something different and you’ve got to get them to tell you what they’re doing with their shifts, motions and alignments and whatnot. That’s where I think out quarterback today really excelled and took advantage – when I say advantage, it’s making plays that you need to make against tough looks in tough situations. We were really close on some other ones. Real, real close. I think we’re just scratching the surface on the passing game. Hopefully we’ll get healed up front so we can continue progressing both the running game and passing game and take another step as on offense.
Q. On containing the UCLA running backs…
CRISTOBAL: I really don’t think that there’s – sky is the limit for these guys, this team and this defense. Those guys just rose to the occasion. They knew they were going to have to strike blockers, get off blocks and make plays. And our guys did it again, again and again. I didn’t realize those were the numbers. That’s outstanding. That’s off the charts. It shows the capabilities of our team when our team is on point. Just super proud of that type of performance. That’s awesome.
Q. On consistency and being 7-for-9 on third downs…
CRISTOBAL: Well, I mean just intensive film study. They do what they do and they’re very good at it. They’re chaotic. They bring pressure from all over the place. It looks like Star Wars. There’s just stuff everywhere. And you got to block it and you got to beat it. Credit to the quarterback. Credit to the offensive line. Credit to the running backs. Just everyone stepping up. You know, Anthony just did a great job dissecting them. Offensive line did a really good job of not falling for their stems. We got called for, you know when they move our defensive stem, but our offensive line did a really good job of hanging in there and not moving in with all their stems. They handled their twist game really well and kept their quarterback clean for most of the night and when there was a free hitter, Anthony did a great job getting rid of that thing when he had to and running backs did a great job in protection as well.
Q. On the offensive line battling through injuries…
CRISTOBAL: We really thought Alex was good to go today, but at the last second, he wasn’t. He had practiced all week and was really good. All of those guys have been getting so many reps. You guys always ask why those guys get multiple reps at different positions. Well, situations like this now validate that. So really proud of those guys.
Q. On Kayvon Thibodeaux’s performance and impact…
CRISTOBAL: He changed the game and I think what’s evident is he has worked himself – he hasn’t inherited – into being the most impactful defensive player in college football. Like you said, it’s his first full game, so he’s going to need some ice bags, rest, water, and Gatorade. We’re going to need him to keep doing that because he certainly changes the game.
Q. On Kayvon fully returning to action after being injured for part of the year…
CRISTOBAL: Well, they had 91 total snaps and he played about 65 or 70. He just emptied the tank completely. I’m sorry, I forgot what the question was, but when you witness an effort like that from a player, not only does it demand ultimate respect but a tremendous ‘wow’ factor. I don’t know of any defensive player in the country at the line of scrimmage, any edge player like that. Whatever honors he is up for, he deserves, but I don’t think he is motivated by that. I think he’s a hungry, driven guy who wants to keep getting better and keep getting to 1-0 each week. I’m certainly glad to have him back and I know the whole team is and I know everybody back home is as well.