EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — 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.
Afterward, James and fellow running back Kenjon Barner danced, while other Ducks held roses clenched in their teeth. Fans swarmed the players as fireworks exploded above Autzen Stadium and confetti rained down.
“These guys go play,” coach Chip Kelly said. “They’re fearless competitors.”
Neuheisel, fired following last weekend’s 50-0 loss to No. 9 Southern California, hugged quarterback Kevin Prince as time ran out.
“Well, we weren’t good enough, but it wasn’t because we didn’t have enough heart,” he said.
Neuheisel’s dismissal was part of a wave of coaching moves in the conference. Around the time he was fired, 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.
“They can take my job,” Neuheisel said, gesturing to the locker room, “but they can’t take those boys away from me.”
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 bowl pairings will be formally announced on Sunday.
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 fist 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.
There has been speculation that James may skip his senior season at Oregon to go to the NFL. After the game, fans on the field chanted “One More Year!”
“Just being with my teammates, I cherish that,” he said. “I don’t think about ‘one more year.’ I just think about today.”
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.
This week, the NCAA ruled that the Bruins could accept a bowl invitation even if they lost Friday. Because of Neuheisel’s dismissal, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over if UCLA is selected.
The Bruins have reached just one bowl game in the past three seasons. Athletic director Dan Guerrero said he wants to reward the Bruins’ 18 seniors by going to a bowl even while the program is in upheaval.
Oregon went to the 2010 Rose Bowl in its first season under Kelly, losing to Ohio State. Last season the Ducks went to the BCS championship, where they fell to Auburn.
Oregon had appeared to be in the running for another shot at the national championship game before losing 38-35 to USC at Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.