We're only a few short days away from kickoff at the Fiesta Bowl, where the No. 3 Oregon Ducks will take on the No. 6 Kansas State Wildcats. The two schools have never met in football, though much has been made of the fact that they were originally scheduled to play earlier this season before Kansas State decided to take their non-conference schedule elsewhere. Alas, the college football gods were unhappy with that conclusion, and the game looks to be one of the best match-ups of the college bowl season.
Kansas State University, of course, is located in the Little Apple, Manhattan, Kansas, population 52,281. While Kansas State is often poked fun at for being in the middle of nowhere, Manhattan does have something that few cities of its size can boast--its own zoo. Kansas State has a student population of about 24,000, making it very similar in size to the University of Oregon. Traditionally an agricultural school, K-State boasts an impressive list of majors--from bakery management to golf course maintenance. Distinguished alumni include actress Kirstie Alley, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, former NBA All-Stars Rolando Blackman and Mitch Richmond, and Packers WR Jordy Nelson.
Kansas State, the Big XII champion, wasn't really expected to be here, but their resume has a number of quality wins: 24-19 at Oklahoma, 55-14 at West Virginia, 44-30 over Oklahoma State, and 42-24 over Texas. The blemish, of course, is the 52-24 loss at Baylor that prevented the Wildcats from reaching the national title game.
The Wildcats average 40.7 points per game, allowing 21.1 points per game. The offense is led by quarterback Collin Klein, the epitome of a dual threat quarterback. Klein completed 66% of his passes for 2,490 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, but also ran the ball nearly 200 times for 890 yards and a staggering 22 touchdowns. He teams up with RB John Hubert, who rushed for 892 yards and 15 touchdowns of his own. Its a balanced rushing game. Kansas State also has four talented wide receivers, led by former Duck Chris Harper, who caught 50 balls for 786 yards this season. Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson also had 40 and 36 receptions, respectively. While the receivers are adept pass catchers, like Oregon, they block very well downfield and spring the big gains in the running game. Finally, KSU's offensive line is much improved, giving up only 13 sacks after allowing 42 a year ago. They probably haven't faced a defense with Oregon's speed, which is good news for the Ducks. While the WR group is solid, they aren't Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and if Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell can provide adequate coverage, it will allow Nick Aliotti to sneak a safety up to spy Klein.
Defensively, the stars for K-State are middle linebacker Arthur Brown and safety Ty Zimmerman. They've had a stout rushing defense, giving up only 3.7 yards per carry but, as seen by the Baylor game, they can be had by a team with the threat of a big pass but the speed to run around the edges, as Baylor rushed for 342 yards. Oregon is an interesting match-up for the Wildcat defense. While they've been good against the run, it hasn't been a defensive line that can consistently live in the backfield, which has been the formula that has made Auburn and Ohio State so successful against Oregon in BCS games. That's not saying K-State isn't up to the challenge--they have faced some excellent offenses and did well against all but one of them--its just that this will be a different kind of challenge than what they've faced this year.
Special teams will be all Kansas State in this one. Duck fans know that Oregon can't kick a field goal or cover a kickoff, but the Wildcats have been superb at all elements of special teams this season. K-State has hit 18-21 field goals on the season and average over 28 yards per kickoff return. A close game, or overtime contest, would likely favor Kansas State as, unlike Oregon, they can kick the football.
For the full statistical breakdown of the two teams, check out Kalon's preview from a few weeks ago. Oregon should win this game, but the Ducks need to get out to an early lead and force Kansas State to try and play catch up. If Oregon is up two possessions early, the Ducks will win. If the game is close late, you bring special teams into the equation, which is something I'm very uneasy with.