PASADENA, Calif.– It’s what they had in mind all along, a shot at redemption, a shot at triumph, a shot at capturing a BCS victory in the Granddaddy of them all. It’s the most gratifying experience in Oregon’s existence, to begin a new year by winning its first Rose Bowl game in 95 years.
This is one of those remarkable, surreal moments, and Oregon finally prevailed when it mattered the most, and it might have actually been a sign of things to come in the near future. Chip Kelly stood on the sideline nervously, and then he jumped up and down after his team recovered a fourth-quarter fumble from Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis.
It was as if Kelly had won millions on a slot machine, and it dawned on him that the turnover had changed the game’s complexion, and he knew his team was in position to win the 98th Rose Bowl as time dwindled. It was a thrilling game filled with electrifying performances.
Did you see De’Anthony Thomas?
He stood in the backfield, he took the hand-off, he burst through the middle on the Oregon 9-yard line and took off flying in a matter of seconds. And then, just that fast, he was in the end zone. It was the best game of Thomas’ lifetime as a Duck, styling in that ridiculous Nike uniform and silver helmet. The last time he ran quickly and showcased his explosiveness was when he emerged as a star running back at Crenshaw High School here in Southern California, where he has built a legacy like no other.
“I just saw open field and tried to take it for a touchdown,” said Thomas.
It wasn’t long ago, such as when Thomas was one of the best high-school football players in the nation, that he was targeted by USC and had verbally committed to the university. But he stunningly announced he’d play for Oregon on national signing day, and as a five-star recruit, he has stepped into the national spotlight becoming one of the nation’s fastest running backs, a freshman phenom that has made his case for Heisman.
He sprinted to the end zone for a Rose Bowl record, and was running like he was hastily running a marathon or like he was trying to outran a vicious pit bull chasing him in a sandlot. It was early January – a new year, mind you – and he returned home not for a family visit with his parents or friends but for an extraordinary bowl game at one of the most prestigious venues in sports.
In what was a breakthrough game Monday, Thomas was the star and helped the Ducks to a 45-38 win over Wisconsin. He’s going to wear an Oregon jersey, along with a crazy helmet next season. It seems that for the moment he’s instrumental to Oregon’s future. The Ducks surely hope so, too, in which he’s already emerging into a star, and perhaps is the cornerstone of Oregon as long as he stays and holds everyone’s attention.
And Thomas, in what was a well-anticipated, high-scoring contest, with speed versus strength, rushed for 155 yards on two carries. For all the noise and attention, he has dealt with the fame and raced 91 yards through the middle for a record-setting mark in Rose Bowl history. The other time he flew 64 yards untouched for a scoring run, and was the superstar after rising to the occasion.
As he became a star, a 173 pound tailback built for athleticism and speed, Thomas had 314 all-purpose yards, returning a kick for 125 yards and scoring merely two touchdowns. While he’s easily the fastest college athlete in the nation, and left far from home to become an asset at the University of Oregon and finally led the school to a bowl victory, he could increasingly bolster the program.
So he does now, particularly after the Ducks redeemed themselves, know that he’s on the list of 2012 Heisman Trophy candidates and is the man with blinding speed, erasing the dreadful memories of losses in the 2010 Rose Bowl to Ohio State and in the 2011 BCS Championship to Auburn a year ago.
It’s apparently not easy catching him, and Thomas blasted right by the Badgers. All of which nobody could catch him, let alone keep up with his speed. He continued flying around the edges and through the middle, where he’s dangerous and almost unstoppable. Forget catching him once he’s in the open field. Forget it. He’s lightning fast. And Kelly even knows that he’s electric and explosive, faster than Speedy Gonzalez, emerging as the top running back in the Ducks high-powered rush attack.
After this game alone, against Wisconsin in a game that felt like a homecoming for Thomas, his teammates smothered and hugged him. He is a freshman who had a breakout game with the longest run in Rose Bowl history, and when it was all over, he was lifted by teammate Nick Cody in celebration as tons of confetti dropped onto the Rose Bowl field and softly fell in Thomas’ hair. It’s not usual for Oregon to jubilate feverishly at the end to one of the finest wins in school history, finally coming away with the big one.
There was happiness, almost amazingly, as Kelly shouted to his players in the locker room delighted over the accomplishments. It wasn’t fun without defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, an assistant with a brilliant mind in tightening a defense and turning it into a relentless force. He had walked into the locker room fired up, and the team shouted as Aliotti spoke to them proudly.
For what it was worth, Kelly gave him a prolonged hug and the team celebrated, elated after what finally was a meaningful victory for a university that long awaited this much success. In the most disappointing game of the season, Wisconsin was pretty balanced and powerful but had a costly turnover late. It’s so hard not to envision Montee Ball leaving for the NFL, a junior running back built for speed and strength.
If he does forgo his senior season and declares for April’s draft, he can recall this moment when he rushed for 164 yards and tied Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record with his 39th touchdown. Now, nearing the end of his college career, Russell Wilson, a senior transfer from North Carolina State, may have just elevated his draft status by passing for 296 yards and two touchdowns. As his legacy begins at Oregon, the best runner on the planet is Thomas no doubt, a 5-feet-9 athlete with the most speed in college football.
Thomas knows he has a chance to become the No. 1 star next season. Kelly knows this, too. It’s telling that LaMichael James, who had 25 carries, 159 yards and one touchdown, is likely set to declare for the NFL Draft, but the Ducks are still well-equipped with quarterback Darron Thomas and running back Kenjon Barner. The Ducks, according to Scouts.com, have the 17th overall recruiting class for 2012.
They also have De’Anthony.
He’s quick. He’s amazing.
As he made clear, Thomas said he loves his family and home, but his heart is with Oregon.
Their hearts are with him, too.