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 and its Heisman Trophy finalist, 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 that went in the Ducks’ favor.
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.”
Last year’s Fiesta Bowl was an offensive fiesta, with Oklahoma State outlasting Stanford 41-38 in overtime.
The 2013 version was an upgrade: Nos. 4 and 5 in the BCS, two of the nation’s best offenses, dynamic players and superbly successful coaches on both sides.
Oregon has become the standard for go-go-go football under Kelly, its fleet of Ducks making those shiny helmets — green like Christmas tree bulbs for the Fiesta Bowl — and flashy uniforms blur across the grassy landscape.
Their backfield of Thomas, Barner and Mariota made up a three-headed monster of momentum, each one capable of turning a single play into a scoring drive of 60 seconds or less.
Mariota has been the show-running leader, a question mark before the season who ably ran Oregon’s high-octane offense as the first freshman quarterback to start for the Ducks since Danny O’Neil in 1991.
Oregon won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 95 years last season and was in position for a spot in the BCS title game this year before losing a heartbreaker to Stanford on Nov. 17.
Thomas offered the first flash of speed, picking up a couple of blocks and racing toward a not-so-photo finish at the line. The Ducks, are they are apt to do, went for 2 on the point-after and converted on a trick play to go up 8-0 in the game’s first 12 seconds.
It was the second straight day a BCS bowl began with a quick strike; Louisville returned an interception for a touchdown against Florida on the first play of the Sugar Bowl Wednesday night.
Thomas hit the Wildcats (11-2) again late in the first quarter, breaking a couple of tackles and dragging three defenders into the end zone for a catch-and-run TD that put the Ducks up 15-0.
It’s nothing new for Oregon’s sophomore sensation: He had 314 total yards and two long touchdown runs in the 2012 Rose Bowl. The Ducks are used to it, too, after averaging more than 50 points per game.
And they kept flying.
Oregon followed a missed 40-yard field goal by Kansas State’s Anthony Cantele by unleashing one of its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scoring drives late in the second quarter. Moving 77 yards in 46 seconds, the Ducks went up 22-10 at halftime after Mariota hit Barner on 24-yard TD pass.
Alejandro Maldonado hit a 33-yard field goal on Oregon’s opening drive of the third quarter and Mariota capped a long drive with an easy 2-yard TD run to the left. Kansas State’s Javonta Boyd blocked the point-after attempt, but even that went wrong for the Wildcats: Chris Harper was tackled in the end zone for a bizarre 1-point safety that put Oregon up 32-10.
It was the first 1-point safety in major college football since 2004 when Texas did it against Texas A&M, STATS said.
“There were so many things that could have changed the outcome of this game,” Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown said.
Kansas State had gone through its second revival under Snyder, the studious coach who never lost touch with the game or players young enough to be his grandchildren during a three-year retirement.
The 73-year-old followed up the Manhattan Miracle by returning to lead the Wildcats back to national prominence with his attention-to-detail ways.
Klein has led K-State’s meticulous march this season, a fifth-year senior who plays in the mold of the college version of Tim Tebow: Gritty, humble, finds a way to win, whatever it takes.
Like the Ducks, the Wildcats had their national-title hopes stamped out on Nov. 17, blown out by Baylor with a rare letdown on both sides of the ball.
Kansas State needed a little time to get its wheels spinning on offense, laboring early before Klein scored on a 6-yard run early in the second quarter.
Klein kept the Wildcats moving in the quarter, though not toward touchdowns: Cantele hit a 25-yard field goal and missed from 40 after a false-start penalty.
Klein hit John Hubert on a 10-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, but all that did was cut Oregon’s lead down to 32-17.
He threw for 151 yards on 17-for-32 passing.
“It wasn’t really complicated,” Kelly said of slowing Klein. “He’s a great player, one of the greats of college football. I had my heart in my throat a couple of times watching him around, but out guys just made plays when they had to make plays.”
By doing so, they may have put a nice exclamation point on Kelly’s college career.
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