The best postseason matchup besides the BCS title game certainly appears to be the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday, when Collin Klein and the seventh-ranked Wildcats will try to keep up with the high-powered offense of the No. 5 Ducks.
Besides these teams, college football’s only other unbeatens heading into Nov. 17 were bowl-ineligible Ohio State and Notre Dame, which stood third in the polls behind Kansas State and Oregon. Both the Wildcats and Ducks entered that night 10-0 with two games to go but would suffer their first loss.
Four minutes after time ran out on Kansas State’s perfect season with a 52-24 loss to unranked Baylor, Oregon fell 17-14 to then-No. 14 Stanford in overtime. Both teams would get leapfrogged in the BCS standings by fellow one-loss team Alabama, which went on to claim the spot opposite the undefeated Irish in the title game.
“If you lose a game, you leave it up to chance,” Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. “The only thing you can do is not lose a game. Two years ago we did not lose a game, we got an opportunity to play in the (BCS title) game. This year we did and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
This bowl is the only one besides the national championship game in which both teams are ranked in the top 10 or have fewer than two losses — both are 11-1. The Ducks are No. 4 in the BCS standings and the Big 12 champion Wildcats No. 5.
“The goal all along was to lead this team to a conference championship and a BCS bowl game, and with the unity we showed throughout the season, we were able to accomplish that,” Klein said. “Oregon is certainly going to be a tough matchup.”
Klein finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting but may have cost himself a shot to win it with season worsts of three interceptions and 39 rushing yards against Baylor. He did bounce back to run for 103 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-24 win over Texas.
The senior rushed for 890 yards and threw for 2,490 this season while totaling 37 TDs, including 22 on the ground.
“He’s awfully good at what he does,” Big 12 coach of the year Bill Snyder said, “and he’s awfully good as a leader and he’s awfully good as a field manager, and he’s awfully good in all the physical aspects of the game — and he’s a tremendous person.”
As good as Klein and the Kansas State offense have been, averaging 40.7 points to rank among the FBS leaders, they were held under 30 four times. Three came during the final seven games as leading rusher John Hubert failed to gain 100 yards in any of them, a mark he reached four times in the first five games.
A consistently dominant ground game helped the Ducks score at least 40 in every game except the Stanford loss. They averaged 50.8 points to rank second nationally behind Louisiana Tech (51.5).
They were third in rushing (323.3 yards per game) as Kenjon Barner — ninth in the Heisman voting — ran for 1,624 yards and 21 touchdowns. The highlight was a 321-yard, five-TD performance in a 62-51 win over Southern California on Nov. 3.
This was the senior’s first season as Oregon’s featured back.
“He did exactly what we thought he would do. He’s had some outstanding performances this year,” Kelly said. “… For as young a team as we have offensively, real leader for us on the offensive side of the ball.”
Barner will face a Wildcats run defense which held opponents to 99.3 rushing yards per game excluding the Baylor loss when they allowed a stunning 342.
Oregon was regularly vulnerable against the run, giving up at least 190 rushing yards in four of its final seven games.
Both potent offenses must be careful about protecting the ball. The Ducks finished the regular season with an FBS-high 39 forced turnovers and Kansas State caused 31.
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota threw six interceptions in 312 attempts compared to 30 TD passes, becoming the Pac-12’s first freshman quarterback to make the all-conference first team since USC’s Todd Marinovich in 1989. Mariota was picked off once in the last six games, a stretch during which he also showed off his rushing ability with 469 yards.
Klein is the superior runner but less of a threat through the air. He had three TD passes over the final four games and failed to throw for 200 yards in six.
Still, this matchup could provide another memorable, high-scoring Fiesta Bowl like last season when Brandon Weeden led Oklahoma State to a 41-38 overtime win over Andrew Luck’s Stanford team.
“Watching the Fiesta Bowl on TV every year, it seems like they always have great matchups, and this one is no different,” said Wildcats safety Ty Zimmerman, a third-team All-American who was second in the Big 12 with five interceptions.
As solid as Zimmerman has been, the defensive leader is senior linebacker Arthur Brown. The Big 12 defensive player of the year topped Kansas State in tackles (91) for a second straight season and was named a second-team All-American.
However, he wasn’t a Butkus Award finalist like Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan, a possible first-round draft pick who had five sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for a loss. The Ducks defense also features cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who led the Pac-12 with six forced fumbles and 19 passes defended.
Oregon, which is facing the Wildcats for the first time, is making an eighth consecutive bowl appearance and fourth straight in a BCS game after winning last season’s Rose Bowl. Kansas State has dropped its only four bowl games since 2002, including a 29-16 loss to Arkansas in the 2012 Cotton Bowl as Klein was held to 42 yards on 24 carries.
Kevin Lonnquist’s Take
Why to watch: A great contrast in styles in which the Wildcats like to grind with a punishing running attack led by Heisman finalist quarterback Collin Klein. And then there’s Oregon’s polar opposite approach of go go go led by running back Kenjon Barner (1,648 yards). There’s also a lot of speculation that this could be Oregon coach Chip Kelley’s last game because he could be in the NFL next year. He almost took the Tampa Bay job last year.
Better channel surf: It’s the only game on the schedule. The only thing that would cause you to bail out on this game is if the premonition of Oregon jumping out big early occurs. The Wildcats really have to be careful of that.
Kevin Lonnquist’s pick: Oregon 35, Kansas State 21