On the night of November 17, Kansas State and Oregon were eyeing up a showdown with each other, holding the top two spots in the polls and each undefeated. The national championship dream died for both that evening, but if you thought the Wildcats and Ducks were really the best two in the country all along, you get your wish. They meet in tonight’s Fiesta Bowl. Let’s track the paths each team walked on the road to Glendale and how they match up.
Oregon has been remarkably consistent, given they were breaking in a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. The Ducks played a deceptively good schedule in the early part of the season, taking on bowl teams in Arkansas State and Fresno State, and dropping a combined 99 points on both. A tuneup win over Tennessee Tech sent them into Pac-12 play with their running game, led by Kejon Barner, already in gear.
The Ducks established their identity in jumping out to a 5-0 start in conference games. They amassed huge rushing yardage edges, while Mariota was efficient in the passing game. The quarterback would go on to complete 70 percent of his passes, get a respectable eight yards per attempt and put up a dazzling 30/6 TD-INT ratio. Oregon blew out competitive teams in Arizona and Washington, handled Arizona State on the road with ease and only a poor defensive first half against Washington State marred this stretch of games.
Oregon then went to USC for a much-anticipated prime-time affair and if you like offense, there was a lot to like about this game from the Los Angeles Coliseum. Oregon destroyed the Trojan defense, with Barner getting 321 yards by himself. Mariota completed 21/23 and tossed four touchdowns. Even though the Duck defense was shredded by Matt Barkley, Oregon won 62-51 and had USC at arm’s length most of the game.
A 59-17 win at Cal said that everything was rolling along for the stretch drive, but a warning sign appeared in Berkeley. Cal had success running the ball—since Mariota threw for 377 yards and six touchdowns, it didn’t matter, but it was surely noticed by a physical team in Stanford. One week later the Cardinal came to Eugene, played the Ducks even up and pulled a 17-14 upset in overtime. The win took Oregon out of titles at both the national and conference level, although to their credit, they didn’t sulk. Oregon came back and played a complete football game in dismantling a quality Oregon State team on the road to close the season.
Kansas State played one good non-conference opponent in Miami, sandwiched around tuneup games with Missouri State and North Texas. The Wildcats rolled to a fast 3-0 start and blasted the Hurricanes 52-13. While we identify Collin Klein with this offense, it was running back John Hubert that set the tone early in the year in controlling games on the ground.
On September 22, K-State showed the country what it was made of when they went to Oklahoma, played an excellent defensive game and won 24-19. Klein was tough and efficient, but again Hubert was a key, as he ran for 130 yards. There was no letup following, as the Wildcats hung 56 points on in-state rival Kansas.
Now it was time to settle into the long Big 12 slog. With the head-to-head win over the Sooners, Kansas State controlled the conference race, but in a deep league where you play everybody, the schedule didn’t allow for any weeks off. Over the next five games, we saw Klein completely outplay early Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith of West Virginia, the Wildcats score a combined 99 points in wins over bowl-bound Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and churn out a win at TCU.
But we also saw Hubert all but disappear from the offense, and the team become increasingly dependent on Klein to carry both the running and passing games. We then saw Klein get hurt against Oklahoma State, the ‘Cats look a little sluggish offensively in the TCU win and finally the roof fell in during a shocking 52-24 loss to Baylor. Now the Bears have proven to be much better than anyone thought even then, continuing to close the regular season strong and hammering UCLA in a bowl game. But that explanation only flies if you lose by a four points, not by four touchdowns.
Kansas State, like Oregon, showed character in its final game and didn’t act like playing for goals other than the national title was somehow beneath them. Klein carried the offense against Texas, the Longhorns gave them some turnovers and with a 42-24 win, K-State won its first league title since 2003.
Now we come to Thursday night in the desert. I don’t believe Kansas State can win unless they have someone other than Klein run the ball effectively. The Wildcat passing game has made solid strides throughout the year and Klein spreads the ball well among Chris Harper, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. But it’s asking too much for Klein to do everything himself, particularly against an offense of this caliber.
For Oregon, I think staying patient offensively is going to be crucial. Kansas State’s defense played well against a high-powered attack in Oklahoma, the Wildcats were very effective keeping West Virginia’s Smith throwing the ball underneath and other than the train wreck game against Baylor, K-State has played solid defense, If Mariota stays high-percentage in the passing game and Oregon keeps attacking the edges, they’ll eventually get their points. They just can’t let Kansas State take them out of the gameplan by creating frustration.
I believe Kansas State will succeed in moderating the tempo of the game, but in the end, they don’t have the weapons to win this game. The big intangible lurking here is the rumors surrounding Chip Kelly’s NFL future—it’s the kind of distraction that results in a team losing bowl games. I’m going to give Oregon the benefit of the doubt and pick them to win, but my regard for K-State and a lingering concern about the Kelly distractions make me unwilling to give 8 ½ points with the Ducks.
Outright Winner: Oregon
Pointspread Winner: Kansas State (+8.5)
Totals Line: Under 75.5
BOWL HANDICAPPING RECORD THROUGH JANUARY 1*
Outright Winners: 15-13
Pointspread Winners: 11-16-1
Totals Line: 15-13
*Did not pick Rose Bowl, due to fan bias towards Wisconsin
*Article published prior to conclusion of the Sugar Bowl