Kenjon Barner's historic night caps Oregon's barn-burning win over USC

Kenjon Barner had barely left the locker room when the cameras caught sight of his mohawk. Media surged around him, hot lights from the cameras drawing fresh beads of sweat on his brow. Barner took a step back from the glare and hit the concrete wall behind him.

For the first time all night, Oregon’s senior running back was corralled.

On Saturday night, No. 4 Oregon cruised past No. 17 USC on the sturdy legs of Barner, who broke the school’s single-game rushing record with 321 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries. And the Riverside, Calif., native did it all near his hometown in front of his best friend and the record’s former holder, LaMichael James.

It was an effort worthy of chest thumping. But not if you know Barner.

“We know we have an exceptional offense, but this was a great test for us to have to play four quarters and fight to the end,” Barner said after the game, characteristically deflecting the praise. “We’re going to benefit from this in the long run. As a competitor, you want to be in a great game if you can.”

Barner’s touchdown bonanza began in the second quarter, with a surgical 27-yard dissection of USC’s linebackers and secondary. Scoring runs of five, five, nine and 22 yards would follow.

“I think he deserves the Heisman,” James said after the game. “Any time your best friend can break your record, it means more … If (the Ducks) weren’t beating teams so bad, I don’t know what would happen, he’d probably have 2,000 yards right now.”

The unbeaten Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) exploded even more often than usual on offense. Barner’s 300-plus-yard effort didn’t even cover half of Oregon’s school-record 730 yards of total offense. Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota was nearly flawless in the most hostile collegiate road environment he’s ever seen, going 20 for 23 for 304 yards and four touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, USC had a prolific offensive day too. Sophomore sensation Marqise Lee again torched the Ducks, this time for 157 yards and a score on 12 catches. Lee also broke the Pac-12’s single-game record for kick return yards, the second straight week he’s rewritten the record books. Not to mention All-American Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley threw for five touchdowns and nearly 500 yards.
But it was Barner who made this game truly special. The three-year backup who running backs coach Gary Campbell called “a little reluctant to lead” last year has ignited a campaign for the Heisman Trophy and proven he has all the durability of his former teammate James, and then some. Even more remarkable is how he did it all after the national spotlight turned his way following a profile with The New York Times.

“He’s a warrior. He’s had an unbelievable impact on this team,” head coach Chip Kelly said after the game. “I’m just really glad he came back for his senior year.”

Even Barner’s defensive teammates were impressed by his output.

“It’s an art to see an athlete do that,” Oregon linebacker Michael Clay said after the game. “To go down in his hometown and put up three bills and five touchdowns … that’s unheard of.”

Barner’s big night helped secure the wire-to-wire win for the Ducks, but the game itself wasn’t the lopsided affair Oregon has dominated all year.

Despite racing out to an 18-point lead, Oregon and its secondary couldn’t contain Barkley and his corps of talented receivers. During one stretch of the game, the two teams swapped 15 offensive touchdowns. The Trojans capitalized on mismatches down the field for two 70-yard touchdown passes in the second quarter alone.

But Barner’s dominance was undeniable, running between the tackles, bouncing it outside, turning on the jets and using every other weapon in his arsenal. Against the nation’s No. 29 run defense entering the game — a unit full of four- and five-star recruits that had given up just six rushing touchdowns all year — the thoroughbred stamped his name forever in history.

“I thank and give all the glory to Jesus Christ #InGodITrust (I.G.I.T.),” Barner tweeted on the plane home. But his teammates couldn’t help teasing him. After all, if Barner wasn’t going to say it, someone had to.

“OMG @KBDeuce4 is on the same plane as me back to Eugene #CelebritySighting,” offensive lineman Kyle Long tweeted.

Because, whether Barner likes it or not, that’s what he is after Saturday’s performance: a bona fide college football celebrity.

With Kansas State quarterback and Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein hurt with an undisclosed injury, the Heisman could be Barner’s to take. Imagine how proud that would make James, Oregon’s last Heisman invitee, and the rest of Barner’s supporters.

“He really cherished the moment,” Campbell said.

It’s a moment he’s waited a long time to cherish. From defensive recruit to special teams standout, through the career-threatening concussion against Washington State and all the backup reps he endured when James was Oregon’s poster boy, Barner’s moment arrived on the biggest stage of the season.

Oregon’s season might yield further such moments. At this point the Ducks look more than capable of finishing the regular season undefeated for the second time in three years. The powerful SEC team du jour is Alabama, who survived a scare at LSU on Saturday and look prepared to go 12-0 as well. With a little help from the fickle BCS computers and Klein’s No. 2 Wildcats, Barner, Kelly & Co. could face the Crimson Tide in the national championship.

The matchup is so tantalizing because, among other reasons, Alabama’s defense is the nation’s best. The top offense versus the top defense; unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

Of all things, surely that could get Barner excited, right?

“I can’t worry about Alabama,” Barner said. “They are not even on our schedule.”

One can’t blame him for being elusive. It’s been his habit lately.


Matt Walks

Matt Walks