Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas celebrates the Ducks' 37-20 victory… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)
Reporting from Scottsdale, Ariz. — Darron Thomas may have ended the year as an exclamation point in Oregon's "blur" offense, but back in August he was a different punctuation:
"I was the question mark," Thomas said Thursday.
This was not an Oregon state secret.
Faith in the Ducks wobbled after quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the magnificent magician who led last season's Rose Bowl run, was dismissed from the team by Coach Chip Kelly.
Oregon went from a sure top-five preseason pick to a noncommittal No. 11 in both major polls.
The reason was simple: uncertainty at quarterback.
Thomas, an untested redshirt sophomore from Houston, beat out senior Nate Costa for the starting job late in the summer.
Thomas' first drive, in his first start, ended with him throwing a pass that was intercepted against New Mexico.
It was going to be a long year, some thought, but few envisioned long being a Jan. 10 date in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
"Darron has definitely surprised people," Oregon center Jordan Holmes said.
Thomas got better fast. His next four drives against New Mexico resulted in touchdowns in a 72-0 romp.
Thomas, who played some as a freshman but took a redshirt season in 2009, was the X-factor in Oregon's season.
He has taken Oregon to the brink of places Norm Van Brocklin and Dan Fouts only imagined.
A victory against Auburn on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium would clinch Oregon's first undefeated season since 1916.
Thomas is not nearly as flashy as Masoli or as off-the-chart sensational as his counterpart this week, Auburn's Cam Newton.
"It's good," Thomas said, "Because I get to fly under the radar and focus on the game."
Thomas didn't have a scandal to fend off or finish in the Heisman Trophy running. He was overshadowed in his own backfield by an All-American tailback, LaMichael James, and was named only second fiddle behind Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck on this season's all- Pacific-10 Conference squad.
Thomas, somewhat quietly, turned in one of the greatest seasons behind center in the history of Oregon football.
His 33 total touchdowns for a quarterback — 28 passing, five rushing — rank second behind Akili Smith's 36 in 1998.
It was never going to be easy, and trust was always going to take time.
"A lot of my offensive line is seniors," Thomas said. " … They were used to playing with Jeremiah. They didn't know if I could come out with the same thing that Jeremiah did. So at the beginning of the season they were kind of asking me to come out and be a leader, a vocal leader, but I was kind of the new guy so they really weren't listening to me.
"So I just had to show them what I could do on the field."
The turning point came in Knoxville, on Sept. 11, when Thomas rallied the Ducks from a 13-3 hole to a 48-13 rout.
You don't hear much about Thomas in a week when he's being cast against Newton, but he's almost as important to his team's cause.
"He's the point guard of this offense," James, his tailback teammate, said. "He makes all the right reads. He just does everything for us, the correct way."
Think of Thomas as a smaller Newton. At 6 feet 3 and 212 pounds, Thomas gives up three inches and 38 pounds to the Auburn quarterback. Thomas also is not as big, or as fast.
Newton led comeback wins against South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama — but Thomas has had his moments too.
There was Oct. 2, in Eugene, when Stanford raced to a 21-3 first-quarter lead.
Stanford led, 31-24, at halftime before Oregon scored 28 unanswered points. Thomas was tremendous, finishing with 238 yards passing and 117 yards rushing.
"He's definitely grown and matured into a really good quarterback," said Holmes, Oregon's center. "He's always been very calm. He's always relaxed. Against Stanford, we're down by three scores, and he's like, 'It's OK, everything will work out.' "
And it did.
Mark Helfrich, Oregon's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said Thomas has an insatiable appetite for improving his game.
"And we're continuing to put more on his plate," Helfrich said.
You can't have a dull bulb running college football's most frenetic offense. Thomas has to make decisions in mere seconds between snaps. He is "the read" on the zone-read offense and must decide when to give the ball to James and when to keep it.
Thomas has run for 492 yards this season, and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Yet, in a Pac-10 title-clinching victory against Oregon State, he had one carry for minus-four yards, electing that day to ride tailbacks James and Kenjon Barner, who combined for 267 yards in Corvallis.
That takes discipline, and it gives Auburn something to mull over during video sessions.
Thomas has matured as a team leader but prefers to lead by example.
"I'm a guy that shows it and doesn't really want to talk about it," he said.
Thomas knew there were going to be questions about him. He knew he was the only person who could answer them.
"I just came out working hard from the jump, knowing it was an opportunity that I needed to take advantage of," he said. "I was the only guy that didn't play on the team last year that started this year."
Oregon, with Masoli gone, had one big missing piece on its BCS puzzle board.
"I was just that last piece," Thomas said.