By ANNE M. PETERSON
Kenjon Barner modestly said No. 2 Oregon did “pretty well” in its big win over USC. As for his own record-setting effort, the ever-humble running back credited his teammates.
So it fell to former Ducks running back and good friend LaMichael James to come right out and say it: Barner has proven he’s one of the best running backs in the country and deserves late consideration for the Heisman Trophy.
Barner rushed for a school-record 321 yards and scored five touchdowns in the 62-51 victory over the then-No. 18 Trojans on Saturday, a game many saw as a preview to the Pac-12 championship. No one had ever run for as many yards against Southern California before, and the five rushing TDs tied the Pac-12 record.
“Kenjon is a phenomenal player. I think he just proved that to everybody, that he’s one of the best players in the country,” James said. “I think he’s the best player, that’s not plural, that’s singular. And I think he deserves the Heisman. He should be right up there with everybody else.”
James, now with the San Francisco 49ers, was in Los Angeles for last weekend’s game and spoke to reporters afterward. He held the previous rushing record for the Ducks, running for 288 yards on 23 carries last season at Arizona.
“I’m happy that he broke that record. Anytime your best friend can break your record, it means more,” James said. “It’s like, ‘Man, my record got broken.’ But Kenjon broke it, so it’s OK.’”
Barner is atop the Pac-12 with an average of 143.89 yards a game, which ranks second in the nation only to Nevada’s Stephon Jefferson with an average of 149. Barner is averaging 13.33 points, tied for the national lead.
So far this season, Barner has run for 1,295 yards, ranking him sixth on the Ducks’ single-season list.
The explosion against USC is getting the senior increasing national respect. The 5-foot-11 senior back earned Walter Camp Football Foundation national player of the week honors following the USC victory, as well as the Pac-12’s weekly honor.
Suddenly, his name is being mentioned more frequently by Heisman pundits, joining the likes of quarterbacks Collin Klein of Kansas State, A.J. McCarron of Alabama and Braxton Miller of Ohio State, as well as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
“It’s a blessing, it’s an honor,” Barner said. “But I don’t really worry about it. I can’t worry about that, I can’t focus on that right now because there’s still a lot of football left and anything can happen.”
The victory pushed Oregon’s record to 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-12. The Ducks’ march to a bid for their second appearance in the national championship game in three seasons continues Saturday when they visit California (3-7, 2-5)
Barner was the Ducks’ second-leading rusher behind James for the past two seasons. While James was clearly the star, coach Chip Kelly would often say that the two were so evenly matched that Barner was option “1A” for Oregon.
Last season Barner ran for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns, and caught 17 passes for 184 yards and three scores.
James, a Heisman trophy finalist as a sophomore, announced in early January that he was going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. He finished his career as Oregon’s career leader with 5,082 rushing yards. He is the first Pac-12 player to have three straight 1,500-yard seasons.
Many thought that Barner might follow his pal, but he decided to stay at Oregon and earn his degree in criminology. He graduated this spring.
During the game against USC, Barner surpassed 1,000 yards for the first time at Oregon. But in typical restrained style, he certainly wasn’t taking the credit.
“Once we started to get things going and making runs, I was able to get into a comfort zone,” Barner said. “The offensive line made blocks, the receivers made blocks. We were just clicking and able to get things going.”
James suggested Barner would have many plenty more yards if Oregon hadn’t sat him early in most of the games this season. In the Ducks’ previous eight games, he’d seen fourth-quarter playing time only twice.
“If they weren’t beating teams so bad, I don’t know what would happen,” James said. “He’d probably have 2,000 yards right now.”