SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — LaMichael James is not straying from tradition just because Oregon is playing for the national title. He’s all business, just as he has been all season.
“If you look at this game as bigger than any other game, you’re probably going to lose,” he said.
James, a Heisman finalist and the country’s top running back with an average of just under 153 yards rushing a game, has been as consistent with his play as he has with his attitude that no game is bigger than the next. The philosophy comes straight from Oregon coach Chip Kelly, and no Duck has embodied it more this season than the fleet-footed back who moonlights on the track team.
“He’s just a raw talent, man. I mean, this man can go from zero to 100 just like that,” said Auburn defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker.
James and the No. 2 Ducks face No. 1 Auburn on Monday night in the BCS championship game in Glendale, Ariz.
James and some of his teammates on offense spoke Thursday in advance of the game. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore, who recently announced he was going to stay at Oregon next season rather than go pro, was given the biggest stage in the room, with a bank of television cameras trained on him.
If he was nervous, it didn’t show. But then again, James didn’t deviate much from the script he’s followed all season.
“Attention doesn’t win ball games,” he said.
James first grabbed attention as a redshirt freshman after running back LeGarrette Blount was suspended for punching a Boise State player after Oregon’s 2009 season opener. He ran for a Pac-10 freshman-record 1,546 yards and was honored as the league’s freshman of the year.
For his first game of this season, a 48-13 rout of Tennessee, James ran for 134 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown.
In a 69-0 victory over Portland State the next week, James ran for 227 yards and two scores but said he lacked focus — calling it “the worst game I’ve ever played in my life.” He ran for just 94 yards — his lowest output of the season in terms of yardage — against Arizona State.
James found his stride after that, rushing for 257 yards and three scores in Oregon’s 52-31 victory over Stanford, a win that really catapulted the Ducks into the national championship conversation.
He finished the regular season with 1,682 yards rushing and he averaged a national-best 12 points a game, thriving in Kelly’s speedy spread-option offense. His 22 touchdowns (21 on the ground plus one touchdown reception) are a school record.
“He’s a complete back,” said Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “When you watch the end zone copies of tape, you don’t even see a crease and then all of a sudden he squirts through there and goes 80 yards. You say ‘How did he get through there?’ He keeps himself alive and kind of bounces down the line of scrimmage looking for a crease and once he sees the crease he’s got the jets to hit a home run.”
But James’ career at Oregon hasn’t been without its issues.
His reputation was tainted this spring when he was accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge. James apologized to the woman and was suspended for the season opener against New Mexico by Kelly.
Late this season, he was investigated briefly by the NCAA after it was reported that he was driving around Eugene in a 2003 Range Rover. Turned out he borrowed the SUV from a mentor to avoid someone who kept leaving notes on his own car.
Most say that James is essentially a good kid who had a tough start. His father was shot and killed before he was born, and his grandmother, who raised him, died of cancer when he was a prep star in Texas.
James, a Christian who has a Bible verse tattooed on his arm, quickly deflected questions Thursday about past problems.
“I’m probably not the guy you read all that stuff about,” he said. “That’s just not me.”
Asked if he’s been treated fairly, James said: “By my teammates, yes. By everyone else? I really don’t care.”
James was third in the Heisman vote behind two quarterbacks — winner Cam Newton of Auburn and Andrew Luck of Stanford. He has repeatedly said he cares only about winning games, not individual honors, but would like to someday be named an Academic All-American.
That’s essentially why the sociology major with a 3.01 grade-point average decided to stay at Oregon next season rather than declaring himself eligible for the draft. Luck announced Thursday that he too would stay in school.
“I need to get my degree, and that’s the most important thing to me,” James said. “You can’t play football forever.”