Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl certainly a bit of a let down for anyone who was rooting for the Wildcats, or the Big 12 as a whole and the disappointment certainly extends to yours truly. Heading into the game I wasn’t sure what direction my write up and reaction to the game would take. Even though we are nearly 48 hours removed from the kick-off I still am having trouble trying to formulate a coherent response to what I witnessed.
The 35-17 final score itself is a bit of an enigma in my mind. On the one hand it feels like that game wasn’t as close as Oregon’s 18 point margin of victory would indicate. On the other hand it feels like the Wildcats were a lot closer than that. Honestly I have no idea how to reconcile those two things and I believe them both to be true.
What I do know for certain is that the Ducks had their speed on full display for all to see. The Wildcats did a good job holding up against it for the bulk of the action but as the saying goes, “speed kills” and it only takes one play for a team like Oregon to pop a huge play. There is certainly nothing methodical about their offense and even when they are struggling to put together a drive it always feels like you’re just seconds from watching something spectacular.
We saw that right from the start when De’Anthony Thomas, a blur of green and white at top speed, returned the opening kick-off 94 yards for a touchdown. Making a statement of both team and individual, Thomas leaned as he crossed the goal line as a sprinter would finishing a race. It happened so fast and was so sudden it nearly took my breath away. Seizing on the moment, Chip Kelly dialed up a successful two point conversion and the Ducks were up 8-0 just twelve seconds into the game. Thomas scored a second time in the first quarter on a 23-yard pass from Marcus Mariota and with a 15-0 lead it appeared that a rout could be on.
While Oregon is about speed and pushing the tempo, the Wildcats are about execution and discipline and we saw them at their best in the second quarter as Collin Klein and company settled down and controlled both ball and clock keeping the Ducks off the field. On the back of ten and 13 play drives the Cats made it a 15-10 game and chewed up another large chunk of time with a short seven play drive that resulted in a missed field goal by Anthony Cantele. That miss was huge. Instead of a 15-13 score and a reasonable chance to hold it to that going into halftime, the Ducks wound up with the ball and a minute on the clock. They needed only 46 seconds before Kenjon Barner scored on a 22 yard TD pass from Mariota. Despite Kansas State’s ability to dominate the time of possession battle in the first half – they held the ball for 21 minutes and change – they still trailed 22-10 at the break.
In the second half Oregon came out and decidedly seized control of the game running ten or more plays on three of their six drives. Even though two of those play-packed drives took just over two minutes it was clear they had already worn out the Wildcats defense and the Ducks were just too much to handle at least on Thursday night.
I underestimated the Ducks team speed – and it’s not like I wasn’t giving them credit for that beforehand – but what shocked me was their ability to maintain blocks downfield play after play. The fact that Oregon plays so fast and pushes the tempo is amazing but that formula is volatile for most teams. It often leads to mistakes, both mental and physical, and turnovers as well.
Oregon however is clearly a unique team.
They play with a seemingly reckless abandon but at the same time they are also so disciplined, technically sound and consistently take care of the ball. Much of that is a result of coaching and Chip Kelly obviously deserves the lion’s share of that credit. I’ve long admired his offensive system, but after watching this year’s Fiesta Bowl I have a much healthier respect for him as a head coach than I ever did before. There is little doubt in my mind that he will find success in the NFL if he chooses to make the jump.
All the praise on Oregon however should not obscure the fact that the Wildcats played a decent game and hung tough. Yes, they had their miscues and certainly weren’t at their best, but they did show up and they played hard. They didn’t let the Ducks run them off the field. The way the first quarter came to pass I think a lot of other teams would have folded when faced with similar circumstances.
While the final score wasn’t all that close, we got to watch two incredibly well coached teams and for that I’m thankful. There is no need to the Wildcats to hang their heads after the loss. They proved that they belonged out on that field and in my mind backed up the legitimacy of their 8-1 Big 12 record and 11-2 record overall. At their best I believe Kansas State could beat Oregon – even if the Ducks were playing well. For the record I think there are only a handful of teams in college football that I could say that about. As Chip Kelly’s team probably beats most team’s handily even if the Ducks only bring the “C” game.
Collin Klein didn’t get to end his college career with the storybook ending we were hoping, but all in all it was a fantastic college football season in Manhattan, Kansas.