EUGENE, Ore. -- Darron Thomas says emphatically that he's still the starter for No. 7 Oregon.
The Ducks quarterback returned from a knee injury Saturday to face Washington State but threw two interceptions in the first half and was pulled from the 43-28 victory over the Cougars.
Coach Chip Kelly said he felt backup Bryan Bennett gave the Ducks the best chance when they embarked on the second half with only a 15-10 lead.
Afterward, Thomas was asked if anyone had told him he was still the starter.
"I think I know that," he said.
Running back LaMichael James also came back after two games off because of a dislocated right elbow. Wearing a brace, he ran 53 yards for Oregon (7-1, 5-0 Pac-12) which won its 21st straight at Autzen Stadium.
Washington State (3-5, 1-4) lost its fourth straight, but the Cougars hung tough with Oregon for much of the game.
Darron Thomas missed Oregon's 45-2 victory over Colorado last week because of the injury he sustained the week before against Arizona State. Bennett, a redshirt freshman, was steady in the start against the Buffaloes.
With a brace on his left knee, Darron Thomas did not look limited mobility-wise. He finished 8 of 13 for 153 yards and a score.
He said he was told that the team was looking out for his best interests in sitting him in the second half.
"You look at the stats," he said. "I don't think it was that bad."
Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mark Helfrich shot down any notion of a quarterback controversy.
"I believe 100 percent in Darron Thomas in all ways, shapes and forms. There's nothing else to read into this," he said.
Bennett completed four of seven passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns. He said he was surprised by the move.
"They just called my number and it was time to go," Bennett said.
Marshall Lobbestael, who played in place of injured Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel, completed 28 of 48 passes for 337 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. Marquess Wilson had a career-high 11 catches for 126 yards.
Cougars coach Paul Wulff was pleased with the effort.
"If we come out and play with the focus that we did today and take care of the football and play with a higher level of execution, then we can play with anybody in the country," he said.
Oregon's special teams set the tone when they blocked Washington State's punt after the game's opening series and Boseko Lokombo returned it 26 yards for the touchdown. Holder Jackson Rice's pass to kicker Alejandro Maldonado was good for two extra points to put the Ducks ahead 8-0.
Andrew Furney kicked a 40-yard field goal to narrow the margin for the Cougars.
Oregon made it 15-3 when Darron Thomas, scrambling away from several defenders, got off a pass moments before he was hit. Tuinei awkwardly pulled it down and stumbled into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown.
Furney missed a 25-yarder for the Cougars with just under three minutes left in the first half. But Washington State would quickly recover, with cornerback Damante Horton's 76-yard interception return for a touchdown to narrow it to 15-10 with 1:50 left.
Maldonado's 47-yard field goal attempt for the Ducks went wide right as time ran out in the half.
Bennett set the tone for Oregon in the second half with a pitch to De'Anthony Thomas, who ran for a 45-yard score.
After Furney's 35-yard field goal for the Cougars, Bennett found Tuinei in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown to give the Ducks a 29-13 advantage.
The Cougars closed the gap again with Lobbestael's 24-yard TD pass to Jared Karstetter, but De'Anthony Thomas answered with a 93-yard kickoff return for a score.
De'Anthony Thomas now has 11 touchdowns this season, an Oregon record for a true freshman. He finished with 262 all-purpose yards against the Cougars.
Kenjon Barner ran for a 28-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter for the Ducks. Washington State's Rickey Galvin had an 8-yard scoring run and the two-point conversion was successful for the final margin.
"We feel like we can play with anybody. We may not have the whole world behind us, but at the end of the day it's about the 11 players on the field. It's about us," Cougars running back Carl Winston said.
James, a Heisman trophy finalist last season, said he felt that he was out of sync. But he was glad to get back on the field and take some hits before the Ducks face Washington in Seattle next week.
"If a guy has a big robot arm, of course they're going to try to strip the ball," said James, who dislocated his elbow against California on Oct. 6. "I'm glad that I got that out of the way."
Neither he nor Thomas played last week.
And as for the quarterback issue?
"Darron's the guy," James said. "He's our quarterback."
On Washington State's side, Tuel aggravated a clavicle injury in Washington State's 44-21 loss to Oregon State last weekend, but the real problem this week turned out to be a bruised right calf. He was later diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome.
Also absent was Oregon All-American cornerback/kick returner Cliff Harris, who was suspended earlier this week after he was cited during a traffic stop for driving on a suspended license, driving without insurance and failing to wear a seat belt.
Harris cannot participate in any football-related activities. It was a second strike for the junior, who was suspended to start the season after he was cited for driving 118 mph this June.
Harris reportedly paid to have his license reinstated on Friday.
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