Oregon's Thomas is better than you think

Quick: Name the second-rated passer in the Pac-12 behind Stanford's Andrew Luck.

It's not USC's Matt Barkley. It's not Washington's Keith Price or Arizona's Nick Foles.

It's Oregon's Darron Thomas, the guy that some -- let's call it a vocal minority -- speculated just a few weeks ago should be benched in favor of backup Bryan Bennett.

Yes, Thomas. Second-team All-Pac-10 last year. Led his team to the national title game. He's presently the nation's 10th-rated passer with 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

You know, Thomas, the guy who outplayed Luck last weekend. And Price the week before.

Thomas and the Ducks passing game didn't start fast this year. That's largely because the Ducks lost their top two receivers from 2010 -- Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis -- and were young at the position. Sure, Thomas missed some throws here and there. But when a QB is not certain about the guys he's throwing to, that can happen.

And it's not easy to throw well on a sprained knee, which is what Thomas suffered against Arizona State on Oct. 15. It caused him to miss a start at Colorado and get benched in the second half against Washington State.

"It gave me some problems," Thomas said. "I'm almost 100 percent now."

At less than 100 percent last week at Stanford, he completed 11-of-17 for 155 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Luck completed 27-of-41 for 256 yards with three TDs and two interceptions. Thomas averaged 9.1 yards per completion. Luck, 6.2 yards.

The week before at Washington, Thomas completed 13-of-25 for 169 yards with a TD and no interceptions. Price completed 24-of-35 for 143 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Thomas averaged 6.8 yards per completion. Price, 4.1.

Sure, it's a bit of apples and oranges. Different offenses facing different defenses. But the general gist is this -- it's easy to forget how good Thomas is at one important thing.

Winning. In 22 career starts, the junior is 20-2.

Thomas is not as prolific as he was last year in the passing game. He averaged 221.6 yards passing last year and is averaging 189.3 yards per game this season. But coach Chip Kelly said he's still a better QB.

"Last year, he was a first-year starter for us. He did a really nice job," Kelly said. "But I think [this year] he's understanding what we are doing offensively -- being able to get through his progressions quicker, make sure we're in the right protections, change the tempos we're playing at at certain times."

Kelly's combativeness with reporters was in some way responsible for creating a mini-QB controversy. His refusal to say, "If healthy, Thomas will start," forced reporters to speculate, and one not unreasonable line of speculation was that Kelly's refusal to say, "If healthy, Thomas will start," was based on that not being the case.

Thomas seemed to get irritated with the line of questioning when he was asked about the starting job following the Washington State game, but obviously now the whole thing is soon to be relegated to the heap of barely remembered media chatter.

"I wasn't really worried about it," Thomas said. "I just knew I needed to get my knee better. I wasn't worried about who was going to be the starter."

Thomas has another shot to outplay a more celebrated QB Saturday when USC and Barkley come to Autzen Stadium. Barkley is the Pac-12's fourth-rated passer, but he's been playing at a high level of late and is tied with Luck for the conference lead with 29 TD passes.

And Barkley tweaked the Ducks earlier in the week when he said they weren't as good this year as last year, when Oregon rolled the Trojans 53-32 in the Coliseum with a dominant second half.

Thomas laughed off the comments while making it easy to infer that they made their way into the Ducks locker room.

"I think our defense is going to do a great job showing him what we can do," Thomas said. "I think he was trying to get us into some trash talking. We're not too worried about it."

If Oregon beats the Trojans, it clinches the Pac-12 North Division title, which means it would play host to some woeful South Division team on Dec. 2.

USC is the here and now, the task at hand for a team that is focused only on winning the day, per instructions from Kelly. This team doesn't look ahead. Not really, at least.

There have been, however, some cracks in Kelly's Cone of Silence that envelops the Ducks' football compound. After the win over Stanford, do-everything freshman De'Anthony Thomas used a three-letter word: "L-S-U."

He said, not unreasonably, that the Ducks would like another chance against the Tigers.

Before playing LSU in the opener, Darron Thomas called it the biggest game of his career. And then the Ducks' offense mostly flopped, though it was nowhere near as hapless as Alabama was against the Tigers.

Yes, Thomas acknowledged after a short pause, he had entertained the notion of a potential rematch.

"That's our goal, to hopefully finish off this season and maybe get those guys again," he said. "I think our team is more mature if we get an opportunity to play them again."

But first things first. The Pac-12's second-rated passer needs to outplay another more celebrated QB on Saturday so he can lead his team to its second consecutive conference title.