Glendale, AZ – De'Anthony Thomas opened the Fiesta Bowl with a scintillating kickoff return and Marcus Mariota accounted for three touchdowns, as Oregon controlled Kansas State, 35-17, to reach 12 wins for the third straight season.
Thursday's matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium was destined to take place in Miami, Fla. for the national championship after both programs rose to the top of the BCS standings in mid-November. But losses on the same day in their penultimate regular season games knocked them off their perch and out of the title picture.
Despite that late setback, Oregon reached its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game under the guidance of head coach Chip Kelly, whose name has been heavily rumored to be on the short lists of several open NFL positions.
"The success of our football program has always been about our guys. It's an honor that someone would say they wanted to talk to me about maybe moving on to coach in the National Football League," said Kelly. "But it's because of what those guys do, so I'll listen and we'll see."
Kelly watched his fifth-ranked Ducks (12-1) limit Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and the seventh-ranked Wildcats to 23 points below their season average.
In addition to his 94-yard return 12 seconds in, Thomas caught a touchdown pass from Mariota, who was named the game's MVP after throwing for 166 yards and two TDs and running for 62 yards and another score.
Kenjon Barner caught a touchdown pass and gained 167 yards from scrimmage in the convincing victory.
Kansas State (11-2) dropped its fifth straight bowl game and was denied its first 12-win season. Klein was held to 151 passing yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 17-of-32 attempts and gained just 30 yards on 13 carries.
"It's not the way any of us wanted to go out," Klein said. "We just didn't get it done."
Oregon recorded just eight first downs in the first half, held the ball for less than nine minutes, got stuffed on a fake punt and still led at the break, 22-10.
Thomas, of course, had something to do with the time of possession when he took the opening kickoff along the right sideline, followed his blockers, sprinted past the kicker and bolted 94 yards untouched before leaning in for a sprinter's finish at the goal line.
"I just feel like my role in this game was just to be a momentum builder and a game changer," Thomas said about his kickoff return. "Once I seen that opening field, I just wanted to get to the end zone fast and celebrate with my team and get ready for the next play."
Oregon lined up in an unorthodox formation for the point-after, and Dion Jordan took an indirect snap and ran in for an extra two points.
Kansas State punted on its first two touches, and Thomas capped a drive that started near midfield with a 23-yard touchdown catch off a screen pass with 3:46 left in the opening quarter.
The Wildcats moved the ball into the red zone three times in the second quarter and only came away with 10 points. Early in the frame, Klein ended a 10-play, 58-yard march with a 6-yard TD run to the right pylon.
Kansas State had a 1st-and-goal from the four on its next possession, but three unsuccessful runs brought out Anthony Cantele for a 25-yard field goal.
A second straight three-and-out for Oregon ended with a failed fake punt that gave the Big 12 champions the ball at midfield. Again the Wildcats moved into scoring territory, but a false start penalty on 4th-and-1 pushed the ball back to the Oregon 23-yard line.
Cantele then missed a 40-yard try wide left, and Oregon needed just five plays and 46 seconds to score just before the half. Colt Lyerla caught passes of 23 and 17 yards, the latter a pass over the middle that reached the Kansas State 24. On the next play, Mariota had plenty of time to throw and dumped off a short pass to an open Barner, who went unchallenged en route to the end zone.
"It had a significant impact on the outcome of the ballgame," said Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder in regards to the momentum change. "It was a big swing."
Unlike the first half, Oregon controlled the pace after the break and only allowed eight second-half first downs.
Alejandro Maldonado tacked on a 33-yard field goal four minutes in, and Mariota sparked Oregon's next touch with a 32-yard scramble to reach enemy territory. After a short pass to Thomas and four runs by Barner, Mariota kept it himself on a 2-yard touchdown run with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter.
Though the extra point was blocked, Oregon was still awarded a rare one-point safety when Kansas State fumbled away the recovery in the end zone.
Klein and John Hubert hooked up for a 10-yard touchdown to pull within two possessions, 32-17, with 11:35 to play, but that was as close as it got.
Maldonado's late 24-yard field goal accounted for the final score.
Oregon went 5-1 against ranked opponents this season, the lone loss coming to the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl-champion Stanford Cardinal ... Oregon is just the fourth team to appear in four or more consecutive BCS bowl games ... The Ducks improved to 3-2 in BCS bowl games ... Mariota completed 12-of-24 passes to fall short of Sam Bradford's FBS record for highest completion percentage by a freshman ... Kansas State's only other BCS bowl appearance came in a loss to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl ... The Wildcats were outgained, 385-283.