• When/where: 7:30 p.m. Thursday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
• TV/radio: ESPN; WHB (810 AM)
• The series: First meeting
• The line: Oregon by 8 (over/under 75 1/2)
When K-State has the ball
• Wildcats running game: John Hubert led the Wildcats with 892 rushing yards this season, but Collin Klein wasn’t far behind with 890. Together, they make up one of the Big 12’s best running duos. Klein keeps the ball for a handful of designed runs, but is also dangerous scrambling for yards on broken pass plays. If they pick up first downs early, K-State will benefit. The Wildcats are best playing from ahead with a solid running attack.
Oregon has two of the best linebackers in school history at linebacker in Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, who are playing their last game together, and are also the Ducks’ top two leading tacklers. Alonso has the range to make tackles all over the field, but an undisclosed left-hand injury could hamper him.
• Wildcats passing game: Klein made tremendous improvement as a passer this season, completing more than 66 percent of his throws for nearly 2,500 yards. He rarely makes mistakes or throws into coverage. His top two receivers are Tyler Lockett and Chris Harper. Lockett is a deep threat Klein likes to hit for big yardage, while Harper is better at gaining chunks of yards with each catch. If they get going, that could open things up for Tramaine Thompson and Curry Sexton.
All-America defensive end Dion Jordan leads the Ducks’ pass-rushing attack and is projected as a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft. He is difficult to contain, and if he gets to Klein early, it could open up things for fellow defensive end Taylor Hart, who is a load at 6 feet 6 and 292 pounds. All-Pac-12 cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will likely match up with Harper, and has shown a knack for creating turnovers — he has four interceptions and six forced fumbles.
• What to watch: K-State’s offensive line was one of the best in the Big 12 this season. Starting tight end Travis Tannahill and fullback Braden Wilson were also honored by the Big 12 as seniors. K-State coach Bill Snyder likes to use both of them to block next to the offensive line and catch passes. That versatility could be used to K-State’s advantage.
The middle of Oregon’s interior defensive line is probably the weakest part of the Ducks’ defense, and K-State could expose it with plenty of draws from Klein, something he did much more as a junior than as a senior.
When Oregon has the ball
• Ducks running game: The Ducks have one of the nation’s best running backs in 5-11, 192-pound senior Kenjon Barner, a consensus All-American who has rushed for 1,624 yards and 21 touchdowns. Barner does everything you want a running back to do — he has breakaway speed that can burn teams on the outside and enough size to run between the tackles when he has to. Barner had his signature game in a 62-51 win over USC on Nov. 11, running for 321 yards and five touchdowns. He is considered one of the top running backs available in April’s NFL Draft.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a dual-threat player, and has rushed for 690 yards and four touchdowns. All-purpose player De’Anthony Thomas has 686 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and set the Rose Bowl record last January with a 91-yard touchdown run.
• Ducks passing game: Because the Ducks have won so many games in blowouts this season, their passing numbers don’t jump off the page, but they’re more than capable of hurting teams through the air. Mariota has shown a tendency to spread the ball out among Oregon’s receivers — nine Ducks have at least 10 catches and seven average more than 10 yards per catch.
Tight end Colt Lyerla is a big-time NFL prospect in the mold of New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, and has the size (6-5, 246) and speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash) to burn teams all over the field.
• What to watch: Oregon’s biggest weakness is probably up front, where its offensive line is a bit undersized and young compared to Kansas State’s experienced front seven.
Running the spread offense is one thing, but getting a bunch of 300-pound linemen to run a play every 10-15 seconds out of the no-huddle offense like Oregon wants to can wear on the big guys. The Ducks rely on what they call “explosion plays” — gains of 25 yards or more from the line of scrimmage — to win games. Stop those and they run into problems.
• Oregon: The Ducks have one touchdown in their return game this season — a 73-yard punt return against Colorado by De’Anthony Thomas — but they have the capability to break one open thanks to Thomas, who might be the fastest player in the country and has 491 yards in the return game this year.
Oregon has had three players handle their kicking duties this season. Senior Rob Beard does kickoffs, senior Jackson Rice punts and junior Alejandro Maldonado kicks extra points and field goals — although who will do what in the Fiesta Bowl is a mystery. Maldonado missed two field-goal attempts, including one in overtime, in the Ducks’ loss to Stanford on Nov. 17. Beard and Maldonado have been competing for the job since.
Since Oregon scores touchdowns almost every time it gets into the opponents’ 20 — a nation’s-best 58 out of 70 trips — it may be a moot point.
• K-State: This is one area where the Wildcats hold a distinct advantage. Tyler Lockett has returned two kicks for touchdowns this season and is always a threat to take a kick back for big yardage. But it’s hard to kick away from him, because Tramaine Thompson is also an explosive returner. And Bill Snyder routinely praises their blockers for clearing the way. Some teams have kicked the ball out of bounds to avoid them.
In the punting game, Ryan Doerr is one of the best in the country when it comes to pinning opponents near their own goal lines. But he also has a powerful leg, averaging 41.7 yards.
Anthony Cantele connected on 18 of 21 field goals this season while making all of his extra-point attempts. He has proven himself in pressure situations, and is close to automatic from within 40 yards. With no wind at the Fiesta Bowl, he could kick from longer distances.
Few teams put more emphasis on special teams than K-State, and it shows.
Prediction: Oregon 30, K-State 27
The Wildcats are healthy again after a month-long break, and their seniors are motivated to win the first bowl game of their careers. That will make the game close until the end, but Oregon’s fast-paced offense will be as hard to stop as Baylor’s. That gives the Ducks a slight edge.
| Kellis Robinett, firstname.lastname@example.org