EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - With an 86-yard kickoff return against Utah, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas authoritatively announced that he's back.
The dynamic running back had been hobbled this season by an ankle injury that kept him out of nearly four entire games. Now he insists he's fully healed and ready for the final stretch of his junior season.
"I'm loving it, just being out there on the field, having fun, and celebrating with my team," he said.
Thomas' revival coincided with Oregon's rebound in the Pac-12 Conference. Following the Ducks' 44-21 victory over Utah last Saturday, USC defeated Stanford 20-17, popping No. 5 Oregon back into the top spot in the league's northern division.
The Ducks (9-1, 6-1) had fallen behind the Cardinal in the division standings following their 26-20 loss at Stanford the week before. Thomas ran for 30 yards and wound up with 128 all-purpose yards against Stanford, but at one point he was stripped of the ball by Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov when the Ducks were threatening at the Stanford 2.
Before the game, Thomas had provided Stanford with bulletin board fodder by suggesting the Ducks would drop 40 points on the Cardinal. He drew additional criticism during the game when he was seen laughing on the sidelines. Later, it turned out that Thomas was just trying to gracefully handle some nearby Stanford fans who were taunting him.
Against Utah, he ran for 11 yards, had 28 yards on catches and racked up 119 return yards. He caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota early in the first quarter.
But Thomas ultimately signaled his comeback with the 86-yard return in the third quarter, which gave the Ducks a 23-14 lead as they began to pull away from the Utes. He caught the ball at the 14-yard line, found a hole then bolted down the left sideline, just like the DAT that fans had come to cheer before the injury. He ran alone the last 20 yards.
It was his fourth career touchdown on a kickoff return, an Oregon record. Thomas now has 45 total TDs, tying him for third on Oregon's all-time list with Derek Loville.
The running back sprained his right ankle on the opening kickoff of Oregon's 55-16 victory over California on Sept. 28. He returned the kickoff 27 yards but slipped while cutting on the slick turf in a driving rainstorm.
Thomas, who led the Ducks' ground attack with 338 yards and six touchdowns before his injury, missed the next three games against Colorado, Washington and Washington State. Byron Marshall, who leads the Ducks with 991 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns this season, stepped in as the starter.
Thomas' extended absence led many to wonder how serious the injury was, or whether Oregon was simply "saving" Thomas for the Stanford game and the final stretch of the season. The Ducks' policy is never to discuss injuries.
Thomas originally returned for Oregon's game against UCLA on Oct. 26, rushing for a 1-yard touchdown, but the Bruins' defense harassed him and he did not play the second half.
In the seven games he's played in this season, Thomas has 410 yards rushing, 148 yards receiving and 288 return yards, and he's averaging nearly 121 all-purpose yards per game. He's got nine total touchdowns.
The 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back can confound defenses with his versatility and lightning speed. He established a reputation as a dual threat last season, running for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns and catching 45 passes for 445 yards and five more scores. He also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return, becoming the first Oregon player in 47 years with a touchdown four different ways.
In last season's 35-17 Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State, Thomas scored on a 94-yard return of the opening kickoff, the longest ever in an Oregon bowl appearance. In two career bowl games, he has amassed 509 all-purpose yards.
Now in first place in the Pac-12 North, if the Ducks win their final two regular-season games they'll play in the conference championship for a Rose Bowl berth. The loss to Stanford all but thwarted their shot at the national championship.
"Not really worrying about it right now," Thomas said about the future. "We just gotta worry about Arizona and how can we beat that team and go on from there."
Thomas' resurgence could spell trouble this Saturday for the Wildcats (6-4, 3-4).
"I'm getting back to where I was," he said. "I'm just out there having fun and contributing to the team."