You know that old saying “defense wins championships”? While fans may get distracted by these two high octane offenses, it’s very likely that this game will come down to who has the better defense, and who can make the big plays when it matters most.
The key to this game will be defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s defense in this epic matchup between the No. 4 Oregon Ducks and the No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats.
To get a better idea on who might have the edge in the Fiesta Bowl, let’s take a look at the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary.
The Ducks linebacking core is led by the two-headed monster attack of seniors Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. In 2012, the two combined for 167 tackles, three sacks, and four interceptions. Clay has the ability to make key open field tackles, while Alonso thrives on stopping receivers and running backs behind the line. In 2012, Alonso racked up 12 tackles for losses. Alonso is also tied for the team lead in interceptions with four this season. If this game comes down to the wire, a big play from one of these two linebackers could be the difference maker. Remember Clay and Alonso in the Rose Bowl?
For Kansas State, linebacker Arthur Brown led the defense with 91 total tackles in 2012. Brown also added a sack and two interceptions. The Wildcats will have to rely on a big day from Brown if they want to win. As noted in the offensive edition of our matchup previews, the only way the Wildcats win is if Oregon running back Kenjon Barner is shut down for less than 100 yards. That’ll be Brown’s job to make sure Barner doesn’t hit the century mark.
Jarell Childs could also make an impact at linebacker for Kansas State. Childs racked up 64 tackles with two and a half sacks and two interceptions in 2012. He may not be as much of a game changer, but he can still play a role in the daunting task his team is faced with of stopping the Oregon rushing attack.
Oregon has the edge here because both Clay and Alonso are defensive nightmares who create headaches for opposing offenses. While Brown is a quality linebacker for Kansas State who will probably give Oregon their own set of headaches, the Ducks overall have a much stronger depth at the position, giving them the advantage.
This is one area where both teams are very similar. Oregon and Kansas State both have a couple quality guys on the line, but nothing truly elite. For the Ducks, it’s Dion Jordan leading the way with 44 tackles. Jordan also had 10.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2012. He’s got the speed to break up plays before they even get back to the line. Taylor Hart, who racked up eight sacks this season, has proven he can get off blocks to get to the quarterback. In order to win, the Ducks will have to make Klein as uncomfortable as possible, and that is exactly what Hart and Jordan can do.
Kansas State has a couple quality guys on the defensive line as well. Adam Davis and Meshak Williams lead the way for the Wildcats. In 2012, Davis had 53 tackles, twelve for a loss, along with seven and a half sacks and four forced fumbles. Williams is also a threat to blow up plays in the backfield with 13.5 of his 36 tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage in 2012. Williams also added nine and a half sacks and three forced fumbles. They possess the talent to break off blocks and get to plays before they get back to the line, which will be a key for the Wildcats to come out on top. With seven forced fumbles between the two, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, along with Barner, might want to hang on to the ball a little tighter than usual in this game.
Advantage: Kansas State
This one is close, real close. But the numbers from Davis and Williams are just a little bit stronger in my eyes. What sticks out to me as well is the forced fumbles between the two of them. This game could come down to one late turnover in the fourth, and Davis or Williams could step up to be a hero with a turnover to give Kansas State the momentum needed to come out with a win.
Both teams possess a secondary that knows how to create turnovers. For the Ducks, sophomore cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a turnover machine. To go along with his 58 tackles in 2012, Ekpre-Olomu had six interceptions and four forced fumbles. The young corner has quickly turned into a leader on this team. Free safety Erick Dargan and defensive back Brian Jackson have also stepped up on defense for Oregon, combining for 110 tackles and 5 interceptions. The Ducks have had there fair share of injury problems on the defensive side of the ball, but these guys were able to step up to the challenge this season.
The Wildcats secondary also has the ability to come up with the big turnover. Cornerbacks Nigel Malone and Allen Chapman, along with free safety Ty Zimmerman came up with five interceptions a piece in 2012, 15 out of the team’s 18 total interceptions. If Kansas State can’t force Barner or Mariota to cough up the ball, it’ll be up to those three to come up with that heroic turnover late in the game.
I give the Ducks the advantage here for a couple reasons. First, this secondary has stepped up in the face of adversity this year dealing with injuries. Living up to Chip Kelly‘s “next man up” philosophy, the Oregon secondary has played a major role in getting the Ducks to their fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. Secondly, you can’t ignore what Ekpre-Olomu has done this season. 10 turnovers in 12 games is madness. Look for him to come up with one big turnover, maybe even the turnover that’ll seal a Fiesta Bowl win for the Ducks.
Overall Defensive Advantage: Oregon
The Ducks defense is vastly underrated. In my eyes, their coming out party was Oregon’s Pac-12 opener versus the Arizona Wildcats, who came into the game with one of the nation’s top offenses. The Ducks answered by shutting out the Wildcats, forcing four interceptions and a fumble along the way, including pick-six’s from Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill. The two teams are nearly identical when it comes to giving up points. Kansas State ranks 24th in the nation in points against while the Ducks rank 26th. The Ducks get the edge on defense because they possess the playmakers that can make the difference in a game that could come down to one big defensive play.