Controlling tempo, getting off the field key for Cats in Fiesta Bowl

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The K-State Wildcats and Oregon Ducks have been on a collision course for the past few weeks. K-State and Oregon, once Nos. 1 and 2 in the BCS polls and expected to be a lock for the national championship game, both suffered upset losses on Nov. 17 that ended their title dreams. However, both teams bounced back in their next game, Oregon wrapping up an 11-1 year with a sound beating of arch-rival Oregon State and K-State winning their third Big 12 Conference championship at home against Texas. 

Oregon’s fast-paced offense was a force to be reckoned with this season, averaging over 50 points a game and scoring 85 touchdowns, the best in the NCAA. The Ducks cruised to a 10-0 start without so much as a challenge, steamrolling opponents by an average score of 54.8 to 22.3. With the exception of their 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford, the Ducks were never held to below 40 points. 

K-State also jumped out to a 10-0 start with the defense leading the way, allowing just 17.7 points per game before traveling to Waco, Texas to take on the Baylor Bears. Baylor’s NCAA fifth-ranked offense, similar to Oregon’s fast-paced spread game, smacked the Wildcats in the mouth, plastering them for 52 points and eliminating them from national championship contention. 

The Wildcats’ defense will have their work cut out for them again on Jan. 3 in Glendale, Ariz. K-State tended to struggle against offenses that kept the game moving at a fast pace, so it will be key for the Cats to slow the game down. Part of this responsibility will fall on senior quarterback Collin Klein and the offense to move the chains and hold on to the ball. It will also be key for senior defensive ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis to get in the backfield and disrupt plays. K-State’s defense struggled getting off the field on third down during the regular season, with offenses picking up first downs just over 40 percent of the time. Oregon’s offense, however, ranked 21st in the nation in third-down conversions at 47.25 percent. The longer the Ducks’ offense is standing on the sidelines, the better for K-State.

One weakness in Oregon’s offense is its tendency for turnovers. The Ducks lost the ball 19 times in the regular season, compared to K-State’s 10 loses. Senior defensive backs Allen Chapman and Nigel Malone both have five interceptions on the season (as does junior safety Ty Zimmerman, who has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and is questionable for the Fiesta Bowl), and baiting Oregon’s redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota into making mistakes will be important. K-State’s 31-10 ratio of turnovers caused versus turnovers lost is the best margin in the NCAA. 

In order to slow the Ducks down, the Wildcats will have to fix the problems they encountered in Waco and attempt to mimic what the Stanford Cardinals did to hold Oregon to 14 points. K-State’s defense will likely have to continue without key contributors Zimmerman and junior linebacker Tre Walker, so the Wildcats can’t let the Ducks’ key running backs run wild. Given the chance, senior Kenjon Barner and sophomore De’Anthony Thomas could outplay K-State like Baylor’s sophomore running back Lache Seastrunk, who finished with 185 of his team’s 342 rushing yards and a touchdown.

K-State couldn’t get off the field on third down against Baylor (10-15), while Stanford allowed Oregon just four third down conversions in 17 attempts. K-State didn’t lose the time of possession battle in Waco, but allowing the Ducks to have the ball for anywhere near half the game (Baylor had the ball for 29:42) is a recipe for disaster. Oregon only had the ball for 22:55 against Stanford, compared to the 28:49 the Ducks averaged in their 11 wins.

If K-State can keep the game at a manageable pace, create turnovers, prevent big plays and keep the Ducks’ offense watching from the bench for as long as possible, it will open the door for Klein and Co. to go to work on Oregon’s vulnerable defense and put the Cats in a great position to win the Fiesta Bowl.

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