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Oregon vs. Kansas State, Fiesta Bowl preview: Fleeting and fantastic college football

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The Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will be a great game, but it'll also likely be the end of eras for both Kansas State and Oregon. This might be your last chance for a while to see each of these great teams at their very best.

Jonathan Ferrey

This one just feels right, doesn't it?

Not too long ago, both of the Fiesta Bowl's participants -- the Kansas State Wildcats and the Oregon Ducks -- would have considered a Fiesta Bowl bid a bit of a disappointment. Both fancied themselves national title contenders, advancing well into November with perfect records and championship resumes, but both failed to clear their second-to-last hurdles (Kansas State got whipped at Baylor, while Oregon was stunned at home in overtime by eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford). So while Notre Dame and Alabama face off for the national title, we get these two in a de facto third-place game. And hot damn, does it feel right. This is perhaps the most 2012 game of 2012, pitting two defining, tactically fascinating, non-traditional powers.

This is also a bit valedictory, of course. We will watch Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein pull his "convert every third-and-3" routine, his "opponents will still be underestimating how fast I am in the fourth quarter" act, for the last time. So many components of this incredible two-year run for Kansas State -- Klein, linebackers Arthur Brown and Jarell Childs, cornerbacks Nigel Malone and Allen Chapman, receiver Chris Harper, et cetera -- are wearing Wildcat uniforms for the final time. KSU has gone 21-4 since the start of 2011, and Bill Snyder will be forced to move on with a very, very different cast of characters next season. But for now, we get to watch this familiar crew try to pull off one more huge win.

Advanced Fiesta math || Picks, watchability for every bowl || Rece Davis with SB Nation's K-State site

Meanwhile, let's face it, this might be the final time we see Chip Kelly coaching for the Oregon Ducks. The rumors about Kelly taking a leap to the pros are twice as loud as they were last year, when he came close to accepting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' job. They could all be rumors with no basis in fact, but we should probably soak in the Fiesta Bowl just in case.

Oregon should be fine (for at least a while) without Kelly -- the depth chart just features so much young talent, from quarterback Marcus Mariota (redshirt freshman) to utility back De'Anthony Thomas (sophomore) to corners Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell (both sophomores) to tight end Colt Lyerla (sophomore) to the three freshman studs on the defensive line to the three young starters on the offensive line to receivers Keanon Lowe (sophomore) and Bralon Addison (freshman). But an era could still end on January 3. We should be prepared.

Read up.

At Football Study Hall this season, research and analytics intern Mike Nixon wrote frequently about both of these fascinating teams. Here's your chance to brush up.

August 8: Oregon’s Offense: What Makes Them So Ducking Good?

For opposing coaches, one must generally modify what they do best to successfully slow the Ducks' spread – a stubborn Cover-2 or 4-Deep/Quarters team will simply get eaten alive by what Oregon does best. Because Oregon’s quarterbacks are such a running threat, it creates another level of vulnerability the defense must account for. To combat this, most opposing defenses are forced to drop an extra safety into the box to counteract this additional threat.

Unfortunately, such a maneuver then leaves one’s pass defense in a state of flux. When an eighth defender is forced to play in the box, it greatly limits the defense’s ability to play a variety of coverages. Variations of a 3-deep zone and/or man-to-man coverages are about the only options. Sacrificing the unpredictability of one’s pass coverage to improve the run defense is a weekly dilemma upon which Oregon’s opponents must deliberate.

The reason you see so many deep pass plays from the Ducks’ offense is because defenses are often in a single-deep-safety formation, thus creating vertical seams for Oregon to exploit. Sadly for opposing coaches, if you want to slow Oregon, you simply have to risk something.

September 28: How does Oregon make offense look so easy?

The danger of Oregon’s run game forced the Wildcats to over-commit in hopes of slowing it. In response, the Ducks used the play-action pass to take advantage of a defensive scheme that put Arizona’s safety in a nearly impossible situation. When the outside linebacker failed to widen the slot wide receiver to help the safety, the free inside release made an Oregon touchdown just a simple pitch and catch.

As the still shots show, the threat of a proven ground game can set-up big plays in the passing game. In this particular instance, the threat of the read-zone and/or read-zone option made a play-action touchdown look simple and easy. By effectively running the ball year in and year out, the Ducks have established an offensive machine defined by its’ great flexibility and continuous innovation.

October 23: Leach (Kelly) V. Holgorsen, Week 8: The Real Guru Joins The Party

Many people believe if you don’t give up big plays and make Oregon sustain long drives, then you may have a chance at limit their success. Well, Oregon showed that simply is not the case, with back-to-back 14- and 15-play drives that both resulted in touchdowns early in the contest.

One of Chip Kelly’s calling cards, much like Holgorsen, is how he consistently mixes up offensive formations on a week-to-week basis. Against the Sun Devils, Kelly opted to use formations that included a traditional tight end attached to the line much more than he had in previous contests. Whether or not that was to combat the Sun Devils’ blitz-heavy defense or to simply make the Sun Devils adjust to something new on the fly, it proved very effective.

October 26: Brains and brawn: How Collin Klein puts extreme stress on a defense

As an athletic, 6’5, 225-pound quarterback, Klein presents all sorts of issues for an opposing defense. He throws it well enough to keep the defense honest, he moves well enough to extend and/or make plays with his legs, and he is so big that he always seems to fall forward and get an extra yard or two when the Wildcats need it. Simply put, he can throw it over you, run it around you, or pound it right at you. It may not be pretty, but it sure is effective.

Credit the Kansas State coaching staff for knowing what they have and taking advantage of Klein’s diverse skill-set. The still-shots below are an example of the Wildcats using Klein’s versatility to put defenders in compromising situations and force them to play with hesitation. […]

On this particular play, the linebacker is put in a precarious situation. First, he must honor Klein’s strong running ability and begin to attack the line of scrimmage. But in doing so, he is abandoning his pass responsibilities and leaving the slot receiver open. That is what the design of the play is meant to do: either the linebacker creates a soft-edge by hesitating against the run or he creates space for the slot receiver when attacking downhill.

October 30: Leach V. Holgorsen: Klein is Making Snyder Look Like the Offensive Genius

While the versatility and play-making ability of Heisman front-runner Collin Klein obviously is essential, the diversity of alignments and plays deserves an equal share of the acclaim. No other team in the nation has as much variation on a play-to-play basis as the Kansas State Wildcats. They run a plethora of things, and run them all well.

The Kansas State offense can go from an empty-backfield pass play, to a two tight-end, I-formation power run play, to a three-receiver, pistol-formation speed option on three consecutive plays. If an opposing defense is lucky enough to hold them to a fourth-and-short, the Wildcats will simply have their 6’5, 226-pound quarterback line up in a Wildcat formation and follow two blocking backs and a pulling guard. Nine times out of 10, Klein is going to ram his way forward and get the first down.

Kansas State's offense is only predictable in that everybody involved knows what they do well and will simply out-execute you while putting big numbers on the scoreboard.

November 13: Kansas State is No. 1: Collin Klein and the most balanced squad in the nation

Even better yet, the Wildcats are extremely balanced in their run/pass splits out of each formation. While some teams become extremely predictable when they line-up in particular formations, KSU seems to do an incredible job of self-scouting to ensure they do not fall into any formation tendencies and become predictable. Whether it’s a strong play-action game out of the offset I-formation or running a quarterback lead draw out of a shotgun spread formation, the Wildcats make sure opponents are threatened across the board in every formation they show. […]

As the initial coverage stifled the three-man pass route, Klein bought extra time with his legs before finding an open Tyler Lockett for a 15-yard gain. With a new set of downs, the Wildcats lined up in a shotgun formation with two tight end and two wideouts. They then ran a read zone with Klein for a short, two-yard gain. The very next play, Kansas State once again lined up in a 3-wide set with their tight end attached to the line-of-scrimmage (the same set they just rolled Klein out for the 15-yard pickup) and ran a quarterback lead draw for a 34-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead. With that, the game was over. Some run, some pass, a lot of formations, and a lot of success. That is the best way to sum up the Wildcats’ offense.

November 16: Turnovers to Touchdowns: The Oregon Way

As previously mentioned, the Ducks are tied for the lead in the nation at this time with 30 forced turnovers. Thus far, Oregon has been able to turn those 30 turnovers into 136 points (either returning them for scores or having the offense score on the subsequent drive). As the far right column shows, the Ducks generally waste little time in scoring after creating a turnover. […]

It is hard enough to slow down the Ducks when you’re playing a perfect contest. It is almost impossible to do so when you are gift-wrapping points in the form of turnovers. Thus far, Oregon opponents are averaging three turnovers per game that the Ducks have capitalized to the tune of two touchdowns per contest (13.6 points per game, to be exact).

November 20: Stanford takes Oregon out of its comfort zone

Stanford repeatedly made big plays that stalled Oregon’s explosive machine. More importantly, Stanford’s big plays on defense consistently took place on early downs, leaving Oregon in many undesirable third-and-long situations.

Five times in the first half, Stanford put Oregon in third-and-7+ situations. The Cardinal were able to accomplish that difficult feat six more times in the second half. Guess what happened on the Ducks’ only possession in overtime? Yep, the Oregon offense was faced with a third-and-9 it was unable to convert. Normally the Ducks thrive on third downs because their elite running attack consistently puts them in easily obtainable third-and-short situations. Against Stanford, that simply wasn’t the case, and the stats showed the consequences.

Shutdown Fullback's bowl marathon says goodbye to Sonic Chip Kelly.

What charting data tells us:

Mike's articles above shed an amazing amount of light on this game, but here are three things we can glean from each team's last contest (Kansas State's win over Texas, Oregon's win over Oregon State):

1. Kansas State's play-action is deadly. There is power in restraint. With Texas (like everybody else) focused so heavily on KSU's run game, the Wildcats could have turned to the play-action pass quite a few times. Instead, they did so only four times in 59 plays*; those four plays gained 102 yards.

In the first quarter, on first down from KSU's 37, Texas was able to get a little pressure on Collin Klein, and he made a poor pass toward Chris Harper. In the other three play-action attempts, all in the second half, Klein found Travis Tannahill for 29 yards on a jump pass (!) and found the explosive Tyler Lockett for gains of 18 and 55 yards.

Oregon knows as well as anybody how dangerous you can be when you rock your opponent on its heels. Oregon uses the play-action a bit more liberally (against a disciplined Oregon State defense, Marcus Mariota completed seven of 10 play-action passes for 50 yards) , but both offenses are geared around reading defenders and delivering the ball where they don't expect it. Kansas State may be a hair more conservative, but that doesn't make the Wildcats less deadly.

* Yes, they attempted just 59 plays. The Wildcats are perhaps the most adept team in the country at bleeding a clock dry against up-tempo offense. If anybody can figure out how to make a three-and-out possession last four minutes, it's K-State.


Jeff Gross/Getty Images

2. Neither team misses tackles. Against Oregon State, Oregon missed three tackles. In each instance, the defense had the ball-carrier well-leveraged enough that a miss didn't turn into a 50-yard gain. The three plays gained a combined 33 yards. Kansas State, meanwhile, missed but a single tackle against Texas, and it came on a nine-yard touchdown run by Malcolm Brown.

I wrote earlier this year that no team is more honest with itself than Kansas State. The Wildcats know their flaws, rarely lose their discipline, and base their defense around simply making sound tackles, forcing the offense to run another play, and eventually forcing a mistake. Oregon is in the same boat. These are two of the more disciplined defenses in the country.

If there is a primary difference between these two teams, it comes in the speed department. Oregon simply has more of it. Kansas State basically forms a net around an offense like a lobster fisherman. But if you have enough speed, you might be able to break through the netting. Case in point: Baylor running back (and former Duck) Lache Seastrunk. Few players have that kind of speed ... but let's just say that Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas is certainly one of them.

3. Read and react. That these offenses kill opponents with reads is nothing especially new. But their defensive philosophies are similar in that regard. Oregon State attempted 50 passes against Oregon; Oregon sent more than four pass rushers at quarterback Sean Mannion just 13 times. Including a pair of four-man zone blitzes, the Ducks blitzed 30 percent of the time -- not a passive approach, but not a reckless one either. Those blitzes did not lead to any sacks, but Oregon State gained just 67 yards on seven completions (4.5 per pass attempt), and Mannion threw two interceptions and five other inaccurate passes. Oregon State still averaged only about 6.8 yards per pass attempt when Oregon didn't blitz, however; the Ducks relied on their stout corners and tackling (OSU gained three or fewer yards after catch on 17 of 23 completions), a strategy that works more often than not.

Kansas State, meanwhile, blitzed just four times in 38 Texas pass attempts. Those four blitzes resulted in three short completions, a sack, and just 13 total yards (3.3 per pass attempt). Most of the time, however, KSU relied on a four-man rush (Oregon will occasionally rush three and drop eight; KSU will bring at least four almost 100 percent of the time) and a reactionary defense. Ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis have combined for 17 sacks on the season, and KSU was able to get to Texas' Case McCoy three times without blitzing.

Texas attempted a lot of the same quick-read, quick-action plays that Oregon will try -- bubble screens, halfback screens, reverses, and a pair of fly-sweep shovel passes -- and it revealed both KSU's discipline and potential lack of speed. In these 15 plays, Texas gained 24 yards on 11 of them. In the other four, however, Texas gained 124. Daje Johnson gained 70 yards on a shovel pass, and Johnathan Gray gained 30 on a rather simple halfback screen. This was one of KSU's leakier performances of the year, and it was flawed in ways that Oregon might be able to exploit even better than Texas. In this game, a couple of big plays would make a world of difference, and Oregon is probably a bit more likely to make those plays.

This game will turn on...

...third-and-manageable. Want to figure out who will probably end up winning this game? Keep track of the average distance each team faces on third down early on.

Bottom line:

This one is going to be so much fun, guys. I think Oregon wins -- I think they are disciplined enough for their speed advantage to be the deciding factor -- but that's not really the point. Watch this game because it will be college football at its highest, most enjoyable level.

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