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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Thomas helps Oregon take next step

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- As confetti settled gently on his shoulders and head, Oregon offensive guard Carson York raised his crutches in the evening air and smiled the smile of someone no longer concerned about his just-torn patellar tendon.

Brian Jackson
Oregon had plenty to celebrate after upending Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

"Between the painkillers and the win, I'm good," York said.

The win. Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38 in a Rose Bowl presented by VIZIO that set records for points scored, goose bumps and helmets that could have doubled as silver solar panels. None of the Ducks were feeling any pain after this one.

"Baby, we did it!" said Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, as he hugged York, who injured his right leg late in the third quarter.

"I love you," left tackle Darrion Weems said.

Wide receiver Josh Huff even brought the Rose Bowl trophy to him. York steadied himself on his crutches and then gave the polished silver football a big smooch.

Oregon hadn't won a Rose Bowl since 1917. That's Chicago Cubs/World Series-drought territory. And when it came to games that could elevate Oregon's program to elite status, the Ducks quacked up.

They lost the 2010 Rose Bowl to Ohio State.

They lost the 2011 BCS Championship to Auburn.

They lost their season opener to LSU.

And with 10:50 left in Monday night's game, the favored Ducks were losing to Wisconsin.

Maybe it was true. Maybe Oregon could win the little ones, the medium-sized ones, but not the big ones.

"I'd had it," Ducks guard Mark Asper said. "I tried to keep my composure when people talked about it in interviews and stuff, but I had had it. I'd had it the first time around, after the Ohio State game, or leading up to the LSU game or the Auburn game. I'd had it."

Oregon beat Wisconsin because it had a chip (and a Chip Kelly) on its shoulder pads. You don't think the Oregon coach didn't remind the Ducks of the rip jobs? You don't think he could do the math?

"It's awesome," Kelly said on the portable stage during the trophy presentation. "It's been 95 years since you can say the Oregon Ducks are Rose Bowl champs."

It won't be another 95 years, not when Kelly has running back/wide receiver De'Anthony Thomas, who had two carries for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's a total freak show," York said.

De'Anthony Thomas
De'Anthony Thomas made an early case for the 2012 Heisman.

That weeping sound you heard was Wisconsin defenders and USC coach Lane Kiffin. The Badgers couldn't catch him and Kiffin couldn't keep the freshman in Los Angeles.

Thomas is 173 pounds (so says the roster sheet) of fast-twitch muscles. If he isn't the fastest college football player in the America, I'd like to see the guy who is. And if he isn't on the short list of 2012 Heisman Trophy candidates, then they ought to use the statuette for a door stop.

Wisconsin wasn't prepared for his speed. Nobody is. It's the difference between Mach 1 and Mach 2. He had two runs -- and he changed the game.

"I feel sorry for them," Asper said of the Badgers' defense. "There was a play -- basically a fly sweep where he's running around the edge -- and the guy I was running to block was trying to take an angle to run down De'Anthony. I was running at him and he was trying to catch De'Anthony and it got to a certain point where I said, 'He's not going to catch him.' So I stopped and, like two steps later, I could see him thinking, 'I'm not going to catch him.' And he stopped and De'Anthony ran off."

Said Oregon safety John Boyett, who has whiffed more than a few times trying to catch Thomas in practice: "They think they've got a good angle on him. Then they realize. They're probably like, 'Oh s---!"'

Oregon won the big one because of the little ones -- the 5-foot-9 Anthony and the 5-foot-9 LaMichael James, who might have played his final game for the Ducks.

James hasn't officially declared for the NFL draft, but a Rose Bowl victory and a 159-yard, one-touchdown night isn't a bad exit strategy. Asked if he savored those final moments of the game because it might be his last in an Oregon uni, James gave away nothing.

"No, not at all," he said. "I was thinking that I want to play another year. That's honestly how I feel. … My happiness is here right now."

If James does an Andrew Luck 2011 or Matt Barkley 2012 and returns to school -- don't hold your breath that he will -- Oregon and USC will be the Pac-12 co-favorites. Even if James bolts, the Ducks will still be the co-favorites.

That's because they still have quarterback Darron Thomas, still have running back Kenjon Barner and still have the fastest man in cleats, De'Anthony Thomas.

"I'm the first to say De'Anthony is a phenomenal player," James said.

Of course, Thomas himself won't say it. He was in full humble mode after the game.

For instance, he couldn't remember the name of the play that he scored on a 91-yard run. "But it was a great play call by the coaches and the hole opened up," he said.

Anthony also revealed that he said he was going to work on his strength and speed during the offseason.

Huh? His speed? That's like George Clooney saying he's going to work on his looks.

"I feel like we're going to be more awesome next year," Anthony said.

But this will do for now. Oregon ended a 95-year streak and York kissed a trophy. He didn't need crutches to return to the locker room. He floated back.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.