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January 2, 2013

Game Up Close: Starting quickly

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Throughout his second stint as Kansas State's coach, Bill Snyder has used the football field as his own personal chessboard. The 73-year-old coach and his staff have consistently made each move with caution and precision to not get overtaken, while instantly dissecting the opposition and looking for the right moment to strike. The in-game adjustments are what makes Snyder one of the best coaches in the game and it's why the Wildcats are in the position they're in this season. This is no fluke. This is strategy.
No. 4 OREGON vs. No. 5 K-STATE
This is undoubtedly the most intriguing matchup of the Fiesta Bowl. It's the speed of Oregon against K-State discipline and sound nature. Led by running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks run a spread offense that is based mainly on the run. Oregon is second in the FBS in scoring offense, averaging over 50 points per game, and third nationally in rushing by picking up a ridiculous 323 yards per game on the ground. They are dangerously athletic and have the ability to bust a huge run at any given time. Oh, and don't forget that quarterback Marcus Mariota has a fast set of wheels on him too. Barner, however, is clearly the number one option of the bunch. He has 248 carries on the season for 1697 yards and 21 touchdowns. It will be imperative for K-State to keep these speedsters in front of them at all times and the return of a healthy Ty Zimmerman should play dividends for a K-State team that is 16th in the country at stopping the run.
Advantage: Oregon
Throughout the week leading up to the game, all of the attention has been centered around Oregon's offense. Although the Ducks are very good and the contrast is worth talking about, it seemed like people forgot just how good K-State's offense has been this year, particularly in the ground game. Sure, the Wildcats' numbers have dipped in the final few weeks of the season, but it is still their bread and butter and what they are good at. They won't back off of it until someone stops it and it should be the case again in this one. Oregon allows 146 rushing yards per game, which plays right into the hands of K-State. The attention will be focused around quarterback Collin Klein and his ability to run, but don't be surprised if you see a healthy dose of John Hubert and Angelo Pease all game. Good teams have been able to run the ball against the Ducks and the Wildcats will likely exploit their weakness to slowly move the chains and keep their offense watching from the sideline.
Big Advantage: K-State
With an offense predicated on the run, Oregon's passing attack has definitely flown under the radar the entire season. In plainest terms, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota hasn't looked like a redshirt freshman at all. He ranks sixth in the country in passing efficiency, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2511 yards, while also throwing 30 touchdowns to just six interceptions. The biggest problem is that he doesn't have a big-time playmaking wide receiver. No player at the position has 30 catches on the year, but that hasn't seemed to be much of an issue. The Ducks like to spread the ball around to a number of guys and give them easy passes where they can catch it and try to outrun the secondary. Mariota will need to be careful in this game, though. K-State's veteran cornerbacks are two of the best at reading quarterback's eyes, jumping routes and taking an interception for six. If Oregon keeps it simple through the air, they could have the upper hand against this bend-don't-break defense.
Slight Advantage: Oregon
During his entire career as K-State's primary signal caller, quarterback Collin Klein has got a lot of criticism. Whether it is his odd throwing motion or his ability to read defenses, the senior has put those issues to rest this season and will have one more game to prove the doubters wrong in a Wildcat uniform. Through 12 games, the Heisman Trophy finalist has completed 66 percent of his passing attempts for 2,490 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Being a running team, Klein hasn't had to throw the ball much, but he's been effective when he does. He is obviously the most important component of this offense and Oregon will try to take him away as much as they can. The Ducks pass defense is nothing to brag about, but they are exceptional at pressuring the quarterback. They will have their eyes on Klein the entire game and will try to force him into beating them through the air. If that's the case, Klein and his receivers should be able to be successful.
Advantage: K-State
For as good as Oregon is on special teams with their athletic returners and ability to force turnovers, K-State is just that much better. This unit is the best in the country and they prove it each game. The Wildcats rank first nationally in kick returns and punt returns. Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson are huge threats to any team in the return game and will be looking to make their mark if they get the chance. In the kicking game, senior Anthony Cantele is as consistent as it gets and punter Ryan Doerr has performed at a high level all season. Not to mention, special teams coach Sean Snyder has one of the most vicious and productive coverage units in the FBS. Oregon can be very good in this area, but K-State has proven all season that they are better.
Big Advantage: K-State
Besides perhaps the BCS National Title game, there isn't a better bowl matchup this season. The contrast in style is appealing to many and the clash between two strikingly different coaching styles is beyond interesting. However, these two teams have a lot of similarities. Both teams have an 11-1 record, showcase a run-first offense with a dual-threat quarterback and are two of the top three teams in turnover margin. Chip Kelly is a talented coach with a creative mind and it will be in full force come game time. His team doesn't lack confidence and they know exactly what they are capable of. They are also familiar with playing in big games for this is their fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. That is very impressive. But there is just something about this K-State team and head coach Bill Snyder that is hard not to like in this matchup. This is a senior-led team that has been successful against quality teams all season. They are disciplined and seem to frustrate everyone they play. If all goes according to Snyder's plans, the Wildcats will have a solid chance of winning. K-State might be the underdog, but it's the role they have grown to thrive under.
Advantage: K-State
Oregon BY 3.5

On Thursday, the chess master's strategy will be fully tested when the man standing on the opposing sideline is the best checkers player in the game in Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The contrast in styles and pizazz is what makes the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 5 K-State (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) and No. 4 Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. so compelling, but it's not the biggest aspect of the game. In fact, it's not close.

For K-State, this game is about starting strong and asserting themselves offensively against of one of the country's best teams. It's simply about being the best team for the first 15 minutes of the game. And although the Wildcats have shown that they can get off to good starts, it hasn't exactly been their strong suit this season.

"We haven't been a very explosive first-quarter team," K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel admitted this week. "It usually takes us a quarter or a quarter and a half, but sometimes against teams like Oregon you aren't going to have that luxury so we have to come out and try to have some success early."

In 2012, Snyder and the Wildcats have taken a wait-and-see approach in the first quarter offensively. They keep the play calling fairly vanilla until the defense shows their weakness. It's a brilliant strategy the majority of the time, but not against Oregon.

To put it mildly, the Ducks are dangerous in the opening quarter. Their offense averages 16.3 points per game and the defense holds opponents to just 3.58 points in the first quarter. Oregon holds a 10-0 record when leading after the first quarter and has only trailed once in its regular season finale win over in-state rival Oregon State. In their lone loss of the year against Stanford, the Ducks were tied at 0-0 at the end of the first 15 minutes.

With that said, it will be imperative for K-State to keep Oregon's offense on the sideline by generating long, successful drives in the first few minutes of the contest.

"Us having a good start is going to benefit us in a lot of ways because we know Oregon can score almost every time they get the ball," K-State sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. "If we get the ball first and stop them and score and then stop them and score again, that'll help us out because we won't be playing catch-up like we did against Baylor.

"We'll be able to stay in our offense and run, run, run and pass. That'll help us a lot in not having to play catch-up and throw, throw, throw when they know it's coming."

As aforementioned, K-State isn't accustomed to those blazing starts. In comparing them to Oregon, the win percentage is quite similar. K-State is 5-0 when leading after the first quarter in 2012, while posting a 4-0 record when being tied and a 2-1 when trailing. However, K-State's offense hasn't set the tone quite as well as Oregon. They average just 6.5 points per first quarter and have only scored in double-figures three times (Miami (FL), West Virginia and TCU). Oregon has never allowed a team to score in double-digits after the first frame and has scored over 10 points in nine games this season.

Snyder admits that they've had somewhat of a wait-and-see approach, but it hasn't been intentional.

"It's not that we haven't attempted to do that," Snyder quipped on Wednesday. "It's not our intent to go to the field and say, 'Okay, we're going to take 15 minutes and see what's out there.' That's not really our approach.

"The approach is that we're going to do the best we can. We want to move the ball. If we can move it and score in the initial phases of the ballgame, we want to do that. Does it happen that way? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."

The trend of a slower-paced first quarter didn't just emerge this season or even in Snyder's return after a brief retirement. It's happened in every bowl game he's coached. In the 13 bowl games under Snyder, K-State is 3-0 when leading after the first quarter, 2-3 when tied and 1-5 after trailing. And much like this season, K-State has failed to register a double-digit score at the end of the opening period of any bowl game under Snyder. Those are astonishing statistics and they should not be taken lightly against Oregon.

"This game we're going to have to be on top of things because Oregon has a very good offense and is going to put up points," junior left tackle Cornelius Lucas said. "We can't go two or three quarters where we don't do anything. We have to be very good in every quarter of this ballgame."

The success of K-State's offense lies on the right arm and legs of their senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, Collin Klein. He is the engine to this offense and will need to be at his best in order for the team to be successful. The attention has constantly swirled about Oregon's offense, but it's their defense that will be the biggest difference maker. The Ducks will have to slow down the No. 10 scoring offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Klein, one of the most dangerous players in the country.

"He's the catalyst, that's for sure," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "I'd say it's a lot like two years ago, Cam Newton, that offense at Auburn ran through Cam Newton. They're similar offenses, then there's a lot of differences, too.

"But the bottom line is you know that the offense is going to run through Collin Klein, which is good for Kansas State, because they're getting the ball in their best player's hand every down. He's the guy that's the general. He's the guy that gets to call the shot. But it's also we know that's the case, too. We're going to have to see how the game unfolds."

K-State's offense most certainly runs through Klein, but it seems that Oregon is putting all of their chips into stopping him and no one else. That leaves ample opportunities for first-team All Big 12 selection running back John Hubert and Angelo Pease to make a major impact. Good running backs have been able to exploit this defense and Hubert is one of those deceiving backs that could have a big game.

Yes, a quick start of moving the chains, dominating the time of possession and keeping the Oregon offense bored on the sidelines in the first 15 minutes will be vital. However, according to Klein, it's important, but not the end of the world.

"When you start fast it makes it easier to finish," the 6-foot-5, 226-pound signal caller said. "It doesn't make it a done deal, but it definitely makes it easier. There's no doubt we'd rather play ahead than behind.

"You can't mentally lock yourself in that box because all the sudden, when we're down, to me that doesn't mean a darned thing, because we have to find a way to win the game. It's a stat that carries some weight because it's much easier to finish when you started well, but we're going to finish one way or another. As a player, we can't think about that stuff too much, but it carries some weight."

The stats carry weight and so does this game for K-State and Klein. The Wildcats are trying to become the first team in the program's history to record a 12-win season and for Klein, a win would pass Michael Bishop and Ell Roberson in the rankings and become the winningest quarterback in school history.

There's a lot at stake. Both teams are very good at what they do and have had over a month to prepare. They probably know more about each other than they want to. It's all about strategy and execution at this point. And in the end, if K-State's offense can get off to a good start by playing their game and milking the clock in the first quarter, Snyder will have the advantage in proving he is a better at chess than Kelly is at checkers.

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