GLENDALE, Ariz. – De’Anthony Thomas caught the opening kickoff, raced past Oregon’s sideline and leaned his head into the end zone like a sprinter crossing the finish line.
The track meet had started and the fifth-ranked Ducks barely looked back after that.
Triggered by Thomas’ 94-yard return, Oregon bolted by No. 7 Kansas State 35-17 Thursday night at the Fiesta Bowl in what may have been coach Chip Kelly’s final game with the Ducks.
“I felt like my role in this game was to be a momentum-builder and a game-changer,” Thomas said. “Once I saw that edge, I wanted to get to the end zone as fast as I could so I could celebrate with my teammates.”
They did it a lot.
Teams that had that national title aspirations end on the same day, Oregon and Kansas State ended up in the desert for a marquee matchup billed as a battle of styles: The fast-flying Ducks vs. the execution-is-everything Wildcats.
With Kelly reportedly talking to several NFL teams, Oregon (12-1) was too much for Kansas State (11-2) and its Heisman Trophy finalist, quarterback Collin Klein, turning the game into a try-to-keep up race from the start.
Thomas followed his before-everyone-sat-down kickoff return with a 23-yard touchdown catch, finishing with 195 total yards.
Kenjon Barner ran for 143 yards on 31 carries and scored on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota in the second quarter.
Mariota later scored on a 2-yard run in the third quarter, capped by an obscure 1-point safety after a blocked extra point attempt that went in the Ducks’ favor.
It was the first 1-point safety in major college football since 2004 when Texas did it against Texas A&M, STATS said.
Even Oregon’s defense got into the act, intercepting Klein twice and holding him to 30 yards on 13 carries.
“We got beat by a better team tonight, combined by the fact that we let down from time to time,” coach Bill Snyder said after Kansas State’s fifth straight bowl loss.
Whether Kelly leaves Eugene or not, he had a good run, leading the Ducks to four straight trips to BCS bowls, the last two wins.
Ducks fans sure let him know how they felt, chanting “We want Chip!” just before he was handed the massive Fiesta Bowl trophy.
“Our focus was on this game tonight,” Kelly said. “If for some reason, someone wanted to talk to me, it’s because of those players over there. We have an unbelievable team, an unbelievable program and any success is because of those guys.”