Ducks Barner puts horrible hit behind him

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon's perfect season has been filled with so many thrills, so much euphoria. Perfect regular seasons do that. And celebrating a berth in the national title game after whipping your rival 37-20, as the Ducks did at Oregon State on Saturday, surely is the greatest moment. Probably in the history of the program.

But there also is little question of the lowest moment during this charmed season. It was a moment of despair, which drove more than a couple of Ducks to tears.

That would be when running back Kenjon Barner was knocked senseless by a head shot on a kickoff return at Washington State on Oct. 9. As Barner lay motionless on the field, and the TV broadcast replayed the hit over and over, it was impossible not to fear the worse.

"He was down for a while," linebacker Casey Matthews said. "When you go out and play football, you don't think of that stuff. You think you are invincible. The tears were falling. It was definitely emotional."

The distance between the moment running back LaMichael James covered his head with a towel to keep his emotions private as he prayed for his best friend and the pair sitting on a podium celebrating their Civil War victory after evenly splitting 267 yards rushing is vast.

"Just getting back on the field with these guys, it's a blessing," said Barner, who rushed for 133 yards on just 15 carries -- 8.9 yards per rush -- with a 23-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that iced the game.

The Ducks season is overflowing with good stories, but Barner's may be the best. His season started with a bang of a different sort. With James suspended for one game due to offseason legal issues, Barner tied the Oregon record with five touchdowns -- in just the first half! -- in the opener versus New Mexico. He needed just 17 carries to pile up 147 yards. He also caught a 60-yard touchdown pass.

But between that bang and the bang at Washington State, there was mostly silence.

Barner, who had a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl last January, was expected to be a Robin to James' Batman this season. But in the two games before heading to Pullman, he rushed just six times for 14 yards. He mostly disappeared and was not happy with himself or his role.

"There were times I was really frustrated," he said.

Then he woke up in a hospital room, where James showed him video of the hit. It was not something he could just shrug off.

"I watched the hit a couple of times," he said. "It made my stomach cringe. It wasn't a good feeling. It's still not a good feeling. It was never me thinking I never wanted to play again. It was just like, 'Man is that going to happen again? Am I going to go through the same thing again?'"

He wasn't the only one who took deep measure of the moment.

"It was pretty sobering," offensive tackle Mark Asper said. "You kind of realize the fragility of the situation. There's been a lot of attention about concussions in football this year and to have it brought home like that with Kenjon -- it was a scary moment. This is the closest team I've been on. To see someone get hurt like that -- he's one of your friends."

Barner didn't play in the Ducks' next two games. He saw his first action since the hit nearly a month later against Washington, rushing for 60 yards on nine carries with a touchdown. Pretty good numbers.

At first Barner said he felt fully restored -- confident and in sync. But that really wasn't the case.

"Against Washington, I wasn't as aggressive as I was today," he said. "With time, it came."

Said Asper, "It did take a couple of weeks. It took a while for everybody to stop handling him with kid gloves. Then you realize, he's a football player, a top athlete."

Barner turned in some of his best work late against California. Then he rushed for 71 yards in the win over Arizona. But the player in Reser Stadium on Saturday was the Barner of old -- speedy, shifty and elusive on the edge, a dangerous runner in space. He also delivered some blows and ran aggressively, driving for extra yards.

Barner (5-11, 180) and James (5-9, 185) are about the same size. Both are fast, though James is faster. Yet their teammates say they are very different backs. Matthews said Barner is more physical and a better receiver, and James is faster. Asper went the other way saying Barner is better on the edge and James is better between tackles. Coach Chip Kelly talked about James' speed and Barner's "shiftiness."

Whatever. Kelly provided a bottom line on the two sophomores: "I think maybe defenses have a sigh of relief when you take LaMichael out, but when you thrown Kenjon in there, it's very difficult."

James, who scored two touchdowns against the Beavers, is the unquestioned leader. He's the nation's leading rusher and a Heisman Trophy candidate. His 1,682 yards this year -- a new Pac-10 record for a sophomore -- is the second most ever gained by an Oregon back. He's also set a school record with 22 total touchdowns this year. Barner converted from defensive back just last year. He's still learning the position.

But Barner again looks like the quality backup folks expected him to be in the preseason, one who can stress a defense, who can be a dangerous counter punch to the lightning of James.

"It's unbeknownst to me sometimes who we have in," Asper said. "We'll be pulling the pile apart and it's like, 'Hey, it's Kenjon.'"

It was Kenjon -- big -- against the Beavers. And the Ducks are thankful for that in ways that go beyond yards and touchdowns.