Fiesta Bowl may be a window into Oregon’s future, or its past

Oregon made a BCS bowl, and the opponent featured a veteran coach known for discipline and special teams. The visitors from the nation’s heartland brought more fans, and their tall, physical quarterback and agile defensive line made them dangerous. They were a team that didn’t turn the ball over much, rarely hurt themselves with penalties, and excelled in special teams and the kicking game.

Pregame, the talk was Oregon would dominate with their superior speed and blur-fast pace on offense.

But Ohio State won 26-17. The Buckeyes controlled the football while the Ducks made a couple of costly turnovers. Their beastly defensive line frustrated the Oregon running game. Rose Bowl MVP Terrelle Pryor gashed them for 266 yards passing and two touchdowns, and stiffarmed his way to a bruising 81 yards on the ground.

Talk this week is how Kansas State could follow the blueprint used by Stanford, but it’s also easy to see how 6-5, 225-lb. Collin Klein could master the Ducks just like Pryor did.

Or maybe not. Nick Alliotti’s defense did a much better job stopping Auburn and Cam Newton a year later in the 2010-11 BCS National Championship Game. Newton averaged just 2.9 yards on 22 rushes as the Auburn offense, a juggernaut all season long in SEC play, was held to just 22 points in a win that came down to a last second field goal.

There isn’t a Duck fan alive that wants Thursday’s game to come down to a last second field goal. Even though it would be a golden Duck egg of a comeback story if Alejandro Maldonado made one.

Last season against Wisconsin Oregon got a big measure of respect by winning a high profile game against a marquee opponent with a big, physical line. Even so, this game poses an interesting test in several ways.

The Ducks are famous for saying that every game is the Super Bowl, and that they focus strictly on winning the day and preparing for a faceless opponent. Will they show up with their best rhythm and execution and make a focused effort in Glendale?

Teams and athletes always struggle to find that fine balance between being loose and confident and being too loose and too sure of themselves. All the news leading up to the game is about Oregon’s speed and scoring punch, about Chip Kelly going to the NFL and the looming threat that possible NCAA sanctions might gut the Ducks this spring. Meanwhile, Kansas State has been quietly preparing, and they have the extra motivation of being somewhat overlooked.

Kansas State has plenty of players who are athletic and fast, and eager to prove they belong on the field with not only the Ducks but also playing at the next level. Linebacker Arthur Brown may be the best athlete on either team. The 6-1, 231-lb. senior had 91 tackles this season, earning him All-Big 12 honors, a trip to the Senior Bowl, and a long look in this year’s NFL draft.

The Wildcats got a huge boost in the weeks leading up to the game when junior safety Ty Zimmerman completed rehab of an injured ankle. He missed the last two games of the year, including the Baylor game that many Duck fans want to hang their stocking caps on in predicting an easy Oregon win. Rob Moseley compared his return to the advantage Oregon would gain if John Boyett had somehow become available (he’s not, and neither is Avery Patterson.)

This game could tell Duck fans just how real and effective that every-game-is-the-Super-Bowl approach really is. With Chip Kelly rumored to have a Friday interview with the Cleveland Browns, it can offer some hints to how well they can play without him next year, whether the culture, system and attitude he’s put in place will live on.

The Ducks missed out on the national championship this game by a missed block and a couple of missed field goals. After reaching number one in the polls, anything less than the Big Game is a potential letdown. They insist they don’t see it that way, that they’ve sustained their enthusiasm and desire after a six week layoff.

Tonight we’ll see if they can truly bring playoff intensity to a game against an unsexy but extremely disciplined and capable opponent.

It’s a down payment on next season, a season they’ll face without senior leaders like Michael Clay and Kenjon Barner, likely with a new head coach, and with the possible prospect of playing 12 Super Bowls with no BCS at the end.

 

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