Oregon Ducks: Kansas State Wildcats

2013 may be the season of the quarterback in college football, because a lot of good ones are coming back.

In the SEC, there's Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Louisville has Teddy Bridgewater, and Clemson offers Tajh Boyd. In the Pac-12, there's UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelley.

But the best one coming back is Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

How so? Well, for one, that was the assignment: Make a case for the best quarterback in your conference being the best in the nation.

But it's not too difficult to make Mariota's case.

As a redshirt freshman, he ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency. He completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

He threw a touchdown pass in every game and one interception in his final seven games. He was named MVP in the Fiesta Bowl after leading a blowout win over Big 12 champion Kansas State, which capped a 12-1 season and a final No. 2 ranking for the Ducks.

He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after leading an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.6 PPG) and fifth in total offense (537.4 YPG). The Ducks scored 11 points per game more than any other Pac-12 team.

The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Honolulu native is an extremely accurate passer who might be the fastest quarterback in the nation -- see his 86- and 77-yard runs last season. Against USC on the road, he completed 87 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He tied a school record with six touchdown passes against California. He rushed for 135 yards at Arizona State.

Of course, his 2012 numbers aren't mind-blowing. A lot of that isn't his fault. Oregon blew out so many opponents -- average halftime score of 31-9 -- that it didn't require many plays from behind center after the break. For the season, Mariota threw just 24 passes and rushed eight times in the fourth quarter, compared to 227 passes and 71 rushes in the first half.

Manziel, for the sake of comparison, threw 62 passes and rushed 33 times in the fourth quarter. Bridgewater threw 86 passes and rushed 13 times in the fourth.

The good news is folks are probably going to see a lot more of Mariota this season. With running back Kenjon Barner off to the NFL, the Ducks might skew more toward the passing game after being run-centric under Chip Kelly. New coach Mark Helfrich, who was the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last year, is expected to throw the ball around more because he has an experienced quarterback and a strong, experienced crew of receivers.

That means more numbers for Mariota as he leads a team in the national title hunt. The potential combination of stats and wins might be enough to get Mariota to New York in December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Chip Kelly isn't terribly big. He's not notably loud, either. Nor is he typically expansive. Who he is, however, is -- was! -- the presence most often cited as transforming Oregon's football program from good to great. So his absence from the Ducks' first spring practice Tuesday was impossible to ignore.

Yet it's a tribute to the culture Kelly sought to create that it appears his players did a pretty darn good job of doing just that. Mostly.

"At first, a lot of the guys were talking about it," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "It's a little different. But by the end of practice, it was good. Kind of the same. Once we got rolling, it was the same old game of football."

New coach Mark Helfrich, who was promoted from offensive coordinator, admitted to reporters that his first practice sans Kelly was "weird, at points." But Oregon moves too fast to stop for navel-gazing. It's "next man in" when a player or coach leaves or goes down, and so it will be for the beginning of the Helfrich era.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAs a redshirt freshman, Marcus Mariota quarterbacked high-flying Oregon to a No. 2 final ranking.
Without a doubt, the transition from Kelly to Helfrich is the point A of the Ducks' 2013 story. There's no question about point B, either: Mariota.

Somewhat lost in the regional shuffle of the Kelly-to-the-NFL talk and the national hullabaloo over Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel's brilliant Heisman Trophy season was Mariota's extraordinary performance as the Ducks' redshirt freshman starter.

Mariota was in the cockpit for a team that finished ranked No. 2 in the nation after whipping Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. He piloted an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.5 points per game) and was fifth in total offense (537.4 yards per game).

Individually, he ranked first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in passing efficiency. In the Conference of Quarterbacks, he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after completing 68.5 percent of his throws for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

He also got better as the year went along, despite the competition being decidedly tougher. As Rob Moseley of the Eugene Register-Guard pointed out, "[Mariota] had 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 152.74 rating in the first month of the season, and 21 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 171.10 rating after that."

That efficiency number would have ranked third in the nation. Further, keep in mind that Oregon's tendency to stomp opponents into submission by halftime meant Mariota was either on the bench or handing off during most fourth quarters.

While Mariota isn't the only reason many see the Ducks as national title contenders again in 2013, despite Kelly's departure, he is the biggest. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Honolulu native is a seemingly unflappable player who combines A-list speed with notable passing accuracy.

There is little Mariota didn't do well in 2012, so the idea of him improving can foster many pleasant thoughts among Ducks fans. And there are areas in which he can improve. Mariota said his offseason focus has been footwork. New offensive coordinator Scott Frost, promoted from receivers coach, believes Mariota's established strengths can become even stronger.

"I think we can clean some things up and be even more efficient," Frost said. "There are some things we want to tweak to help him have more of an opportunity to impact the game. We wouldn't trade him for anybody. We think he can do some amazing things and win a lot of games. We're going to feature him as much as we can."

With the Ducks welcoming back their entire cast of receivers and being questionable at running back, it's almost certain Mariota will throw more next season. That will mean more opportunities for him to put up big numbers. If he hangs up impressive stats while the Ducks continue to roll up wins, Mariota will gain the esteem of Heisman Trophy voters.

Mariota, the Fiesta Bowl MVP, isn't a guy who seeks out the spotlight, but he also doesn't seem to be afraid of it.

"My parents raised me to handle whatever comes at you," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Then he added, "I'm really looking forward to spring practices."

That sounds very Chip Kelly. Or maybe we now should say that it sounds very Oregon.

Season review: Oregon

January, 24, 2013
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Before we focus forward, we're going to look back with team-by-team season reviews.

We continue today in reverse alphabetical order.

OREGON (12-1, 8-1)

Grade: A

MVP: Quarterback Marcus Mariota went from being the Ducks' biggest preseason question to first-team All-Pac-12. He ranked first in the conference and seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 68.5 percent of his throws for 2,677 yards with 32 TDs and just six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five TDs, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

What went right: A lot. When a team finishes ranked No. 2 in both major polls, tying the school's best-ever final ranking, it's difficult to cast things in a gloomy light. The only way to have done any better was to win the national championship. The Ducks were dominant on both sides of the ball, ranking second in the nation in scoring offense (49.54 ppg) and 25th in scoring defense (21.62 ppg). Most games were over at halftime. Other than the lone loss to Stanford, no team was within 11 points of the Ducks. In fact, eight of 12 foes went down by at least three TDs. The Ducks vanquished their top rivals, Oregon State and Washington, in dominant fashion, and won a second consecutive BCS bowl game, this time topping a top-five Kansas State team decisively, 35-17, in the Fiesta Bowl. What went right? Just about everything, other than ...

What went wrong: Nov. 17. That's the evening Stanford went into Autzen Stadium and shut down the Ducks' previously unstoppable offense in a 17-14 overtime win. There were plenty of "what ifs?" in that game. What if De'Anthony Thomas turned around and provided a chip block on Devon Carrington, which would have turned a 77-yard Mariota run to the Stanford 15-yard line into an early TD? What if the officials had ruled Zach Ertz didn't have control of that 10-yard pass that tied the game at 14-14 with 1:35 to go? What if kicker Alejandro Maldonado hadn't missed a 41-yard field goal in overtime that set Stanford up for the easy winner? That loss did two things to the Ducks' season: 1. It made Stanford the North Division and the Pac-12 champion; 2. It prevented the Ducks from playing Notre Dame for the national championship, a game that most figure the Ducks would have won fairly easily. So, as good as the season was, there are some regrets. Oh, and Chip Kelly bolting to the Philadelphia Eagles is probably a downer for many fans.

2013 outlook: The Ducks have 15 position player starters coming back. By every early account, this team will be ranked in the preseason top-five. So Oregon will begin Year 1 under new coach Mark Helfrich as a national title contender. Again. If Mariota improves, which is typically something you'd assume a guy would do as a second-year starter, he will become a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. His offense will have plenty of other weapons, including Thomas (running back/receiver), receiver Josh Huff and tight end Colt Lyerla. Three starters are back on the offensive line, including both tackles and All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu. The biggest question is replacing running back Kenjon Barner. The defense has a few holes. It loses defensive end Dion Jordan and linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, but the entire two-deep in the secondary is back and there's plenty of experience on the defensive front. The big issue is replacing Clay and Alonso, an elite tandem. It also might help to figure things out at kicker. The schedule is forgiving. The Ducks probably will be favored in every game they play. The redletter date, of course, is at Stanford on Thursday, Nov. 7. That game could have national title implications. Expectations will be extremely hire in Year 1 for Helfrich.

Final Pac-12 2012 power rankings

January, 8, 2013
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These are the final 2012 power rankings.

If you don't like where you finished in the power rankings, you should have played better.

See the pre-bowl-season power rankings here.

1. Stanford: Oregon received a higher final national ranking, and you could make a decent challenge in favor of the Ducks. They didn't get upset by Washington, didn't play a lot of close games and beat a top-five team in the Fiesta Bowl. But, on Nov. 17, the Cardinal went to Eugene and took care of business. Stanford is the Pac-12 champion, and Oregon is not. Ergo, Stanford sits atop the power rankings. And 2013 looks pretty darn good, too.

2. Oregon: The cherry on the top of another special season for Oregon is the return of coach Chip Kelly. And we're of the mind that, if not for the slip against Stanford, Oregon would be sitting atop college football this morning after a fine evening of frolic in South Florida. The Ducks and Stanford will be national title contenders again in 2013. And guess which two teams are going to top the first 2013 power rankings?

3. Oregon State: The loss to Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl was baffling. The Beavers were a superior team that seemed to be looking for ways to lose in the fourth quarter. The quarterback carousel needs to be resolved. But the Beavers still won nine games, and their 6-3 conference record overcomes UCLA because of a head-to-head win on the road. Nice bounce back after consecutive losing seasons.

4. UCLA: Yes, the Bruins flopped in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl against Baylor, but it's impossible not to see Year 1 under Jim Mora as a success, made even more notable by USC's flop. Like last season, the Bruins won the South Division, but this time they earned it.

5. Arizona State: The Sun Devils won their final three games for the first time since 1978. That's how you go into an offseason with optimism. We hear a lot about "culture change" from programs with new coaches. The Sun Devils' culture change under Todd Graham was made manifest by what happened on the field.

6. Arizona: The Wildcats did better than expected in Year 1 under Rich Rodriguez, and the season would have been a complete success if not for what happened against that team from up north. That loss hurts, but quality wins over Oklahoma State, USC and Washington, as well as an overtime game with Stanford, show this team competed better than in recent years.

7. Washington: The Huskies finishing 7-6 against a brutal schedule probably was close to preseason expectations. But the two-game losing streak to end the season, which included a dreadful meltdown in the Apple Cup to Washington State, quashed the momentum a four-game winning steak from Oct. 27 to Nov. 17 had built. Perhaps that will make the Huskies hungrier in 2013, when they have a nice array of talent returning.

8. USC: The Trojans' season was a complete disaster. USC started out at No. 1 but turned in a white flag performance while losing a sixth game in the Hyundai Sun Bowl to a middling Georgia Tech team. The Trojans were eclipsed by rivals UCLA and Notre Dame while wasting the much-ballyhooed return of QB Matt Barkley. Coach Lane Kiffin will be sitting on one of the nation's hottest seats in 2013. We've been over this a few times.

9. Utah: The Utes' move up in class from the Mountain West Conference is proving tougher than some imagined. Utah missed out on playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2002, and there were issues on both sides of the ball. The Utes need an upgrade in talent and overall depth, sure, but consistent quarterback play would be a good place to start. Therein lies hope with promising freshman Travis Wilson.

10. California: A dreadful 3-9 finish ended Jeff Tedford's tenure in Berkeley after 11 seasons. In early October, after consecutive wins over UCLA and Washington State, it seemed as though the Bears might be poised for a rally. Alas, they lost their final five games, including a horrid performance in a 62-14 drubbing at Oregon State. Sonny Dykes has enough returning talent to produce significant improvement in the fall.

11. Washington State: New coach Mike Leach's season was bad on the field and off, but it ended on a notable uptick with an Apple Cup win over Washington that included a comeback from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit. Still, 3-9 took a bite out of the enthusiasm Leach's hiring initially generated.

12. Colorado: A horrid 1-11 finish that was capped by a controversial firing of Jon Embree after just two seasons. The Buffaloes are probably the worst AQ conference team over the past two seasons, and that is the considerable mess new coach Mike MacIntyre was hired to clean up. Of course, MacIntyre put together an impressive turnaround at San Jose State, so he looks like a good choice to bring the Buffs back to respectability.

Chip Kelly was gone, off to the NFL. It was Cleveland. Then Philly. And then he wasn't.

Kelly's second deep NFL flirtation -- recall last winter's "did-he-or-didn't-he?" with Tampa Bay -- ended with him back at Oregon, back atop the Pac-12's present superpower.

Why did Kelly stay? He has yet to comment, which is telling. He feels no need to announce no change, though he is completely aware it's major news. The Pac-12 blog believes, according to no sources whatsoever, that Kelly returned to his cavernous Eugene home Sunday and cranked up the Sinatra and sang along: "I did it myyyyyy waaaaaayyyy!"

Kelly is 46-7 overall at Oregon. He's led his team to four consecutive BCS bowl games, winning the last two. He won 12 games this year by at least 11 points. It's fair to say he's pretty good at leading a football team.

The immediate reaction in some quarters to Kelly's return -- other than surprise from just about everyone -- is that Kelly can't keep doing it like this, both with NFL folks and with Oregon.

Both sides, it is reasoned, will get tired of the fickleness. Does Kelly want to be Oregon's coach? Or does he want to be something else? He must decide!

No, he doesn't. Kelly can do what he wants as long as he keeps winning with panache. When everyone knows you are one of the best living football coaches, you can write your own ticket. Kelly could announce tomorrow that all Oregon fans will be required to change their underwear every half-hour and all underwear will be worn on the outside so Ducks officials can check, and everyone would go, "OK!"

Oregon fans might wish he'd just tell the NFL folks he's not interested, but they get over their frustration when they see he and his staff outcoach a Kansas State team that is as well coached as any in the nation.

NFL teams might get tired of being led on, but they get over that when they see the discipline, focus and offensive magic Kelly produces.

Let me make something clear: Kelly would be successful in the NFL. Of that I have almost no doubt. The analysis you keep hearing about his present systems not working in the NFL is superficial bunk. Kelly's "systems" are all about winning games. Give him Tom Brady, and Kelly would no longer call designed runs for his QB. He'd line up with three fullbacks tomorrow if that helped him win the day.

So know this, too: The NFL will be back. And Kelly is likely to talk to them. At some point, a team might foster an interview that wins Kelly over. But that hasn't happened yet and he, again, remains the Ducks coach.

As a result, Oregon's quiet recruiting season might get a bit louder. Expect some major prospects who were awaiting Kelly's plans to come a-calling.

The other layer to this is the NCAA. One of the potential harrumphs over Kelly leaving would have been expected NCAA sanctions over L'Affair de Willie Lyles. He would have looked like the second-coming of Pete Carroll, who bolted USC ahead of severe penalties.

Some might read into this Kelly's confidence that the sanctions won't be severe, and that's not unreasonable. But it also shows Kelly isn't one to run away from a potential problem. At least, not yet.

Oregon will be ranked in the preseason top five next year. It welcomes back eight starters on offense, including QB Marcus Mariota, a budding Heisman Trophy candidate, and seven on defense. The biggest questions are at linebacker, running back and offensive guard. If the Ducks avoid a postseason ban, they will be national title contenders. Again.

The allure of coaching that team kept Kelly in Eugene. That means nothing for 2014 and beyond. Yes, this could become an annual dance between Kelly and various suitors, one that fans breathlessly follow on Twitter -- "He's gone!" "He's staying!" -- as they learn to mock the term "sources."

It might be emotionally exhausting and generally frustrating for Ducks fans, but this is the annual tax a team pays for having a coach whom everyone else want to lead their team.

Oregon gives the Pac-12 a final 4-4 bowl record, though that record now includes victories in a pair of BCS bowl games.

Here's how we see it following the Ducks' 35-17 victory over Kansas State.

It was over when: Oregon owned the third quarter, making a game that looked competitive at halftime into a tension-free fourth quarter. The Ducks outscored the Wildcats 10-0 and outgained them 166-51 in the frame. They also scored a one-point safety on an blocked PAT, meaning we all saw something we likely never had seen before.

Turning point: Oregon jumped ahead 15-0, but Kansas State came back in the second quarter. Down 15-7, but moving the ball well, the Wildcats faced a fourth-and-1 from the Oregon 18. Instead of trying for the yard, they tried a freeze play. Instead of getting the Ducks to jump, it was the Wildcats who got a false start. They backed it up five yards and then missed the field goal. Oregon, which had been struggling on offense, took the ball and went 77 yards in five plays and just 46 seconds, making it 22-10 at the break. The Wildcats never really mounted a threat thereafter.

Game ball goes to: While De'Anthony Thomas was spectacular with a 94-yard kickoff return for a TD and a brilliant 23-yard run on a screen pass, it was QB Marcus Mariota who earned game MVP honors. The redshirt freshman complete 12 of 24 passes for 166 yards with two TDs and no interceptions, and he rushed for 62 yards on eight carries, a number of them critical third-down conversion dashes.

Notable number: Both teams entered the game among the nation's leaders in turnover margin, and Kansas State had only yielded 10 turnovers the entire year. Oregon won the turnover battle 2-0.

Unsung hero: Senior running back Kenjon Barner had 23 yards on seven carries at halftime, but he finished with 143 yards on 31 carries. And most of those were tough yards.

Unsung hero II: The Ducks' defense may finally get credit for how good it is -- and has been. Kansas State ranked ninth in the nation in scoring this year at 40.67 points per game. It also averaged 411 yards. It gained just 283 yards against the Ducks, and was shut down completely in the critical third quarter.

What it means for Oregon: That Oregon wins a second consecutive BCS bowl game and finishes ranked in the top-five for a third consecutive year. Of course, this might be the last game under coach Chip Kelly, who led the Ducks to unprecedented heights, but he would leave behind a team that should contend for a national title in 2013.

What it means for Kansas State: It was a dream season for Kansas State in Year 4 of Bill Snyder Take 2. The Wildcats have improved every year since Snyder came back in 2009. The next step is winning a bowl game, which they haven't done since 2002. The Fiesta Bowl loss is a bummer, but the Wildcats are back atop the Big 12. That's big.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On Nov. 17, both Oregon and Kansas State lost their only game of the season. Otherwise, these two teams likely would have met each other for the national title in South Florida instead of at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl tonight.

It's also interesting that both lost to an opponent that generally resembles their opponent in University of Phoenix Stadium.

Oregon went down to Stanford, a team that prides itself on its disciplined, physical play on both sides of the ball. That's Kansas State.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsCoach Chip Kelly and Oregon will face a Kansas State team that shares similarities with Pac-12 rival Stanford.
Kansas State went down to Baylor, a team that runs a high-octane, up-tempo, spread offense. That's Oregon.

The parallels are far from exact -- for example, Baylor is pass-first; Oregon is run-first -- but they are notable. Both teams surely paid extra-special attention to those game tapes.

Said Ducks coach Chip Kelly, "I think Baylor has a lot of speed, speed in space. They made kids miss tackles. When they missed tackles, they hit some long runs."

That hits the first issue to watch: Tackling. Said Ducks offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, "Tackling is going to be the biggest thing in this game."

That seems simple, right? And it is. But it's a measure you can measure on your own at home: How often does the first guy miss or fail to bring his guy down? How often does the Duck or Wildcat with the ball get a second chance to gain yards?

Oregon thrives when it gets fast guys into space, and that fast guy leaves the first tackler grasping air. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back Kenjon Barner, receiver Josh Huff and RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas can use a first-guy miss to go yard.

Kansas State isn't quite so fancy, but it's effective. It ranked seventh in the nation in third-down conversion percentage at just over 50 percent. How often can quarterback Collin Klein or another Wildcat twist away from a Ducks tackler and significantly boost the attractiveness of down and distance? Unlike Oregon, Kansas State loves to hold the ball for a long time. Against Oregon, in particular, it wants to methodically move the chains and play keep-away.

Oregon, by the way, ranks 14th in the nation in third-down defense, with foes converting less than 31 percent of the time.

And what about an X factor? We know who the stars are, and it's perfectly reasonable to believe the quarterback who plays better will lead the winning team. But so often in bowl games, a player who has been under the radar all week plays a major role in deciding things.

Maybe that's Huff for Oregon. Or Chris Harper, a former Duck who is now Kansas State's best receiver.

As for Oregon making like Baylor or Kansas State donning a Stanford disguise, it probably won't be that straightforward. Know that both teams labored over that what-might-have-been game film well before the Fiesta Bowl. The weaknesses that were exposed were taken note of and addressed.

At least that's what both teams' coaches and players are saying about the one that got away.

Said Helfrich, "I don't know if they are finding any magic in that game. I don't think it's in there. It's not going to come down to revelations from one game on either side."

Video: Tostitos Fiesta Bowl pregame

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
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David Ubben and Ted Miller talk Chip Kelly's future; K-State and Oregon distractions; and a possible upset for the Wildcats from the field at University of Phoenix Stadium before tonight's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Oregon keys for Fiesta Bowl

January, 3, 2013
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Here are three Oregon keys for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl:

1. Win the turnover battle: Kansas State is No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin. Oregon is No. 3. The Wildcats are ranked that highly because they've given away only 10. The Ducks are that high because they've taken away 38. In Kansas State's lone loss to Baylor, QB Collin Klein threw three interceptions. In fact, Klein threw five of his seven interceptions in the final three games. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota threw only one pick over the final six games, but that interception came in the loss to Stanford. As Oregon coach Chip Kelly would tell you, winning the turnover battle is not just about getting them. It's about what you do with them or what you do when you give them away. Defenses need to make a stand; offenses need to take advantage.

2. Special teams: Both teams are good on special teams, but Kansas State might be the best in the nation. The Wildcats are No. 1 in the nation in punt and kick returns and have a good field goal kicker. As many Ducks fans know, Oregon hasn't been very good at kicker the past two seasons. If the game comes down to field goals, the Ducks are probably going to lose. Further, special teams dictate field position. Beyond that, it seems as if big bowl games feature at least one or two big plays on special teams -- a big return, a blown kick, a blocked kick, etc. In a close game, special teams often make the difference.

3. Get Klein down on first contact: It's strange to say that a quarterback is a physical runner, but that is Klein's game. He runs hard, breaks tackles and is his most aggressive near the goal line, and he gets better as the game goes along, like a good running back. He averaged 13.2 designed running plays per game in Big 12 games, averaged 5 yards per carry and had at least one touchdown in all nine conference games, including five games with at least two touchdowns. Further, he is averaging 1.4 more yards per run on such plays in the second half compared to the first. The Ducks need to be sound tacklers. They need to hit Klein hard. And they need to gang-tackle.
Marcus Mariota and Collin KleinUSA TODAY SportsWith quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Collin Klein, the Fiesta Bowl won't be lacking in star power.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Thursday night? Forget the corn chips; this matchup is about something else.

It's the Regret Bowl. The What Might Have Been Bowl. It's the Can the Mayans Make the Apocalypse Take Out Only Nov. 17 Bowl.

If Nov. 17, when No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 Kansas State both lost their only game of the season, were wiped away, this Ducks-Wildcats showdown likely would have been for the national title.

So, yes, when the Ducks and Wildcats turned on ESPN during the past month or so and watched reports on Alabama and Notre Dame, they often were nicked by a pang of regret, no matter how philosophical a pose their respective coaches tried to establish in the locker room.

Regrets? Yeah, both teams have a few.

"Yeah, a little bit, I'm going to be honest with you," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "It's one of those things you have to learn from. We lost at the wrong time."

Of course, denial can come in handy. Alabama-Notre Dame? Who are they?

"I think this is the best two teams in the nation in this game right here," said Kansas State receiver Chris Harper, who transferred from Oregon. "I know Notre Dame and Alabama have their game, but I think this is the best matchup."

It's certainly a good matchup. No other bowls -- other than that aforementioned matchup in South Florida -- matches top-five teams. You have plenty of star power, with Kansas State QB Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, both All-Americans. Then there's celebrated Ducks redshirt freshman quarterback Mariota, who was first-team All-Pac-12 and will be near the top of many 2013 preseason Heisman lists.

And then there are the coaches. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, the septuagenarian program builder, and Oregon's Chip Kelly, the wise-cracking mad scientist of offense, both would make just about everyone's top-10 list of college football coaches. An added dimension of intrigue is the possibility that Kelly may be coaching his last game as a Duck, as he's being eyeballed by a number of NFL teams.

Said Kelly, "I do not know what the future holds. I do know we have a football game [Thursday] night, and I'm going to be there."

Kelly's crew is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. It lost its first two, including here to Auburn in the national title game after the 2010 season, but beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last year. Kansas State is playing in its first BCS bowl game since 2003, and it has lost its past two bowl games.

So there doesn't seem to be much question about how hungry the Wildcats are to end their season with a victory.

"It would be huge," said Klein, who is 21-4 over the past two seasons. "We talk about finishing all the time. We haven't been able to finish the last two years. To be able to do that is very important to us."

Part of Kelly's coaching philosophy is that every game is the same -- a Super Bowl! -- because your preparation should always be your best. Yet the Ducks want to maintain their perch among college football's elite. A Fiesta Bowl victory likely would cement a 2013 preseason top-five ranking because the Ducks have a lot of talent coming back next fall.

"We have to make a statement to the rest of the country," Ducks offensive lineman Kyle Long said.

As for keys, you hear the usual from both coaches: turnovers, tackling, special teams, etc. But turnovers seem to be even more notable than usual in this one, at least based on the teams' performances this season.

Kansas State has the third-fewest turnovers (10) in the FBS this season and has forced the eighth-most (31). Oregon is tied for first in turnovers forced with 38, including 24 interceptions. The Ducks turned the ball over 19 times, second-fewest in the Pac-12.

Klein had three interceptions in the Wildcats' 52-24 loss to Baylor.

"When we've turned it over, we've struggled," Snyder said. "When we haven't, we've played reasonably well."

Sure, both teams wish they were playing for a national title. But the winner of this game will finish ranked in the top four. So that's better than 116 other FBS teams. Not too shabby, even if it includes a dose of what might have been.

Kelly was asked what he'd learned after playing in four consecutive bowl games.

"I think you learn really how hard it is to get there," he said. "That's the one thing I think as a team, as a staff, as a group of players, to not take it for granted. It's a truly special thing to be able to play in a BCS game."

Of course, it's more special to win one.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The overwhelming sentiment at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the game will be Chip Kelly's last as the Oregon head coach before he fills one of the seven new NFL vacancies. If that is so, the equally overwhelming sentiment is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will step into Kelly's spot atop the program.

Kelly, clearly anticipating the NFL questions, has fought off all inquires on the matter by saying he is only focused on the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. He has emphasized that the NFL talk is not a distraction to him or his team, and that he and his players have not addressed it.

His players have been on message, too.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsMark Helfrich was a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, before joining Oregon in 2009.
Said linebacker Michael Clay: "He doesn't talk about it. No body talks about it."

And offensive lineman Kyle Long: "There isn't really a lot of talk about that. You can control what you can control. What we can control is our attitude, our effort and our preparation."

And quarterback Marcus Mariota: "Whatever happens, happens. Coach Kelly will make a decision that is best suited for him. Whatever he does, this team will support him."

And center Hroniss Grasu: "He's our head coach right now. That's the only way I can look at it. I will play for whoever is our head coach right now. Right now, it's Coach Kelly. I won't look too far ahead."

As for Helfrich, he also is staking out a "wait-and-see" position: "I don't think [Kelly leaving for the NFL is] a slam-dunk like everyone else does. I hope he stays at Oregon forever," he said.

It's important to note there have been no concrete reports of contact with NFL teams, and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he's received no courtesy calls from an interested NFL team. It's plausible -- and very, very Chip Kelly -- that Kelly's non-denials emerge from his enjoyment in making the media awkwardly tap dance in front of him.

Still, if Kelly's departure is just days away, it is reasonable to get an early measure of Helfrich, who has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said of why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

Which is interesting in itself, because Helfrich is different than Kelly. Very different.

"Coach Kelly is the yin and he's the yang," Ducks senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "Coach Kelly is on you. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it out of you. Coach Helf is kind of that guy who brings you along smoothly, rather than rough. Good cop, bad cop. Sometimes they switch roles."

That said, continuity is a big reason to promote Helfrich. Oregon has a team culture, system of practicing and schemes on both sides of the ball that have been working fabulously over the past four years with Kelly. Helfrich wouldn't be expected to change much. Further, he'd likely be able to retain some of the Ducks' staff because Kelly probably will need to hire veteran NFL coaches to offset his lack of professional experience.

Still, Helfrich, as Kelly would advise, is unlikely to transform into a Kelly clone. He's worked with a number of successful coaches, so he'd likely put his own stamp on existing systems.

"You take a little bit of everybody with you," Helfrich said. "I've learned a ton from Chip."

While some players seemed -- for obvious reasons -- uncomfortable with the topic, there was a strong undercurrent of support for Helfrich, and not just with offensive players.

"He's a great guy and knows what he's doing," linebacker Michael Clay said. "Everyone respects him on the team and around the league. I think he'd do a great job as a head coach."

Helfrich is certain to be a head coach at some point. The big question to be answered after the Fiesta Bowl is whether that ascension is just days away.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a school of thought, now apparently subscribed to by a handful of desperate NFL teams, that if that uber-suave, hirsute gentleman from those wildly entertaining Dos Equis beer commercials revealed his true identity, he would rip off a bearded mask and reveal Chip Kelly.

Is Kelly the most interesting man in the world?

Pause for a moment before chortling over our potential hyperbole, for Kelly has packed a lot into his 52-game tenure at Oregon, including 45 victories.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Don RyanChip Kelly doesn't often discuss his life with writers, but when he does, his answers are revealing.
He has run with the bulls in Pamplona. He has led the Ducks to three Pac-12 titles and four BCS bowl games. He has done humanitarian work in Africa. He has produced Oregon's first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years. He has visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kelly, 49 and single, is also fiercely private. He has never cooperated with any truly in-depth "This is your life, Chip Kelly!" story, which is exceedingly rare for a high-profile coach. Nearly all his close friends are back in New Hampshire, where he's from and where he went to college.

Kelly doesn't like glad-handing boosters, something often viewed as a prerequisite for being a college coach. He particularly dislikes talking to reporters, and he goes to great lengths to make sure they understand.

The Dos Equis guy says, "Stay thirsty, my friends." Kelly would say, "Stay away, annoying hangers-on."

Yet the vast majority of Ducks fans not only love all the winning, they love Kelly for his wiseacre, smirking self. They chant "Big Balls Chip!" inside rocking Autzen Stadium to celebrate Kelly's penchant for going for it on fourth down, going for 2 and launching onside kicks at surprising times.

He tells fans, "Shut up!" for cheering behind him during an ESPN postgame interview, and they love him more. A Twitter page, Chipisms, celebrates not only Kelly's amusing or insightful wisdom -- “I saw the ‘Feel Sorry for Yourself’ train leaving the parking lot & none of our players were on it, so that was a good sign” -- but also for his snark.

Inquiries that Kelly doesn't like might get one-word answers, clichéd responses or snappy rejoinders that belittle his inquisitors. Questions that engage him, however, receive full and thoughtful treatment. Consider this response from an ESPN story on Kelly's trip to Africa, when he worked with adolescent girls who had no idea who he was.

"The real heroes are the little girls in Africa who are trying to better themselves so they can help their families," he said. "When I hear a coach say, 'We're grinding.' I'm like: You're sitting in a room with air conditioning watching videotape. That's not grinding."

There seem to be three facets to Kelly. His standoffish public face, the detail-obsessed coach and the Renaissance man determined to drink life to the lees away from the game. Even the hard-driving, "win the day" side of Kelly can loosen up behind closed doors; those who work with him frequently cite his sense of humor.

"He [jokes around] all the time," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, a leading candidate to replace Kelly should he bolt for an NFL job. "It's not: 'Aha, he smiled! Isn't that amazing?' It's daily. We have a lot of fun."

Further, while Kelly's offense almost always runs like a finely tuned machine, plenty of, er, interesting things have been interspersed with winning during Kelly's tenure. Drama has not been lacking over the past four seasons.

His first game as Oregon's head coach remains his worst: A 19-8 loss at Boise State. Not only did the Ducks gain an embarrassing 152 total yards, but Kelly's star running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Broncos player afterward, bringing the hot light of controversy to his team's feckless performance.

Some thought Kelly was in over his head. He answered that by becoming the first Pac-10 coach to lead a team to an outright conference championship his first season.

Oh, and in a sign of interesting things to come, when a season-ticket holder wrote Kelly demanding a refund for his expenses incurred after attending that disastrous trip to Boise, Kelly quickly fired off a note with a personal check for $439.

Heading into 2010, starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended after he was involved in the burglary of an Oregon fraternity house. Losing a star quarterback typically would damage a team's chances, but all Kelly's team did was finish undefeated and play for the national championship, losing 22-19 when Auburn kicked a last-second field goal.

The NCAA came calling during the 2011 offseason, wanting to know details of Kelly's and the program's dealings with street agent Willie Lyles. A distraction? Nope. Oregon won the conference a third consecutive year and the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

Kelly then nearly left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His quarterback, two-year starter Darron Thomas, had already opted to leave the program, which again threw into question the Ducks' prospects. But Kelly returned and so did the winning, with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors while leading the Ducks to a No. 4 ranking and a Fiesta Bowl berth opposite Kansas State.

Yet he arrives at the Fiesta Bowl amid swirling rumors that he's about to leave for his pick of available NFL jobs. Asked about his NFL ambitions this week, he gave a 235-word answer that essentially said "no comment."

"My heart is to win the day, and that’s it," he concluded. "I know everybody wants to hear a different answer, and I know at times when I don’t give you guys the answer you guys want, then I’m being evasive. I’m not being evasive. My job is to coach the University of Oregon football team, and I love doing it. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

So the question will linger for a coach who at the very least is currently the most interesting man in college football: Will the Fiesta Bowl be his last day to win for Oregon?
There are seven bowl games left with Pac-12 teams. Which one is a must-win? Your bloggers weigh in.

Ted Miller: Oregon and Stanford are obviously playing in the bowl games with the highest stakes, so both have plenty to gain. And lose.

But Arizona State's showdown with Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl feels like a must-win for the Sun Devils, in large part because it's the conference's biggest "should-win."

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsA bowl victory would keep the good feelings going into Todd Graham's first full offseason at ASU.
The Sun Devils are one of the biggest favorites of the bowl season, as they are more than a two-touchdown favorite against the Midshipmen. Navy, though 8-4, doesn't have a terribly impressive resume. Its best win was probably over East Carolina. Its triple-option attack was shut out by San Jose State. On Nov. 10, it lost by 10 points to Troy.

If Arizona State shows up with its B game, it should win. It might even get the W with its C game. But if it shows up without passion or interest, it could get embarrassed.

And that is something previous iterations of the Sun Devils might have done.

First-year Arizona State coach Todd Graham's mantras this season have been about discipline, focus and consistency. What has most juiced Sun Devils fans is not really the 7-5 record or even the comeback victory at Arizona, though it does seem there are a few more wide grins in Tempe these days. It's the (mostly) consistent, disciplined way their team has played. It has bought into Graham's preachings and created a new culture that has revealed itself on the field.

If the Sun Devils futz around and lose to Navy, that becomes a step backward. Not a catastrophic one, mind you, but definitely a negative heading into the offseason, one that also might prevent the Sun Devils from getting preseason top-25 consideration.

And if they win? Well, it's expected, sure. But it also allows the euphoria over the Territorial Cup win to endure into the offseason. Further, a three-game winning streak to end the season is nice, as is getting an eighth win for only the second time since 2003.

Bowl games take on a life unto themselves. It's a bit of a stretch to call any bowl game a must-win. But Arizona State gets the nod among other Pac-12 teams because it's most clearly a should-win.

Kevin Gemmell: In the little corner of the world occupied by college football, perception is reality. And for a while, the perception was that Oregon was completely unstoppable.

Stanford brought all of that crumbling down with one overtime kick from Jordan Williamson and one heck of a defensive performance. The Ducks need to get that mojo back. Fast.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesQB Marcus Mariota and Oregon need a Fiesta victory to regain the aura they lost against Stanford.
And it starts with a big performance in a BCS bowl game against a top-five team.

The Ducks have a golden opportunity to re-establish their national perception when they square off against Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Because the Ducks aren't just playing to close out 2012, they are playing for how they will be perceived in 2013.

If Oregon loses -- regardless how much talent is coming back or coming in -- it will take a hit in the 2013 preseason rankings. With a strong performance, the Ducks will enjoy a nice bump -- probably into the range of No. 2 or No. 3. We still have a year of the BCS system, so rankings are everything. If Oregon can start in one of those high positions, it doesn't have to rely on other teams losing so it can move up.

That's not to say it can't be done. Look at Notre Dame, which started the season unranked in the AP Top 25 and No. 24 in the coaches' poll. Winning has a funny way of working things out. On the other hand, the Irish's BCS title game opponent, Alabama, was No. 2 in the preseason and No. 1 most of the year. So when the Crimson Tide did lose, the slide was minimal.

It's much easier to reach the national championship if you are already positioned among the top handful of teams. Of the past eight national champions, six were ranked in the AP top five in the preseason (Auburn was No. 22 in 2010 and Florida was No. 7 in '06).

Plus, the Ducks probably will take a perception hit if head coach Chip Kelly departs for the NFL.

And that leads us to the importance of this game for 2012. Of course, we know about the non-history between these two schools and the intrigue that goes along with it -- the game that should have been but wasn't. History is written by the winner. No one is going to care about a scheduling snafu if the Ducks roll.

Oh yeah ... and they are supposed to win. There's some pressure that goes with being a nine-point favorite in a high-profile BCS game. A loss would be a significant upset and stains what should be considered a very impressive 2012 for the Ducks. A victory reaffirms that Oregon is an elite program and worthy of national championship consideration next season.

Perception is reality. And Oregon has a chance to set the 2013 perception agenda.

Lots of intrigue for 116th Civil War

November, 20, 2012
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Kelly/RileyUS PresswireOregon coach Chip Kelly and Oregon State coach Mike Riley face off Saturday in the 116th Civil War.
The 2012 Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State doesn't match the 2000 game, when both teams were ranked in the top 10 for the first time in the rivalry's history, or the 2009 game, when the winner-take-all stakes were a Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl berth. But it's pretty darn big.

The 116th Civil War, the seventh-oldest rivalry game in college football, in Reser Stadium on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) approaches the 2000 game in terms of both teams' rankings, the first time in the series that both were ranked in the top 10. Oregon was fifth and Oregon State eighth in that game, won 23-13 by the Beavers. This go-around, Oregon is again fifth and the Beavers 15th in the latest BCS standings.

There is no Rose Bowl on the line for Oregon State, as there was in 2008 and 2009, but the Beavers can play a spoiler role while boosting themselves in the Pac-12 pecking order.

Oregon still harbors hopes of slipping into the national title game, and the Ducks will win the North Division if they beat the Beavers and Stanford loses at UCLA on Saturday. Then Oregon would play host to UCLA on Nov. 30, with -- at least -- a Rose Bowl berth at stake.

And even if Stanford beats UCLA to win the North, an Oregon victory over the Beavers likely would earn it an at-large berth to a BCS bowl game, probably the Fiesta Bowl, where they could end up playing the Big 12 champ, likely Kansas State.

Oregon State? While its postseason destination is most likely the Holiday Bowl, ending a four-game losing streak in the rivalry series would be significant. It would certainly stem the momentum that has been decidedly in the Ducks' favor since an obscure coach from New Hampshire by the name of Chip Kelly arrived as the team's offensive coordinator in 2007.

While the 2008 and 2009 Civil Wars were big games with big implications, the 2010 and 2011 games were all about the Ducks. They were coronation events, as Oregon earned berths in the national title game and the Rose Bowl. The Beavers, meanwhile, were sucking on lemons, suffering through back-to-back losing seasons.

That had some Beavers fans grousing about coach Mike Riley and his staff. It wasn't only about a program backtrack. It was about what was happening 45 minutes to the south in Eugene. It's no fun losing games, but when you are losing, it's much worse when your rival is thriving.

Beavers fans saw Kelly -- smug, smirking, standoffish, annoyingly brilliant -- and felt they were getting left behind.

But we all know things can change quickly in college football. The Beavers are on a clear uptick. While both teams have a lot of talent coming back in 2013, it's Oregon that now has some question marks.

Will Kelly be lured away by an NFL offer? More than a few NFL sorts believe he will have his pick of jobs this offseason.

And what about the NCAA investigation into L'Affair de Willie Lyles? At some point penalties will be handed out. While those penalties are not expected to be crippling -- despite the uninformed blather coming from some people -- they certainly won't help the Ducks maintain their perch atop the Pac-12.

Just imagine how the next couple of months could go for Oregon State fans: 1. A Civil War victory over Oregon, ending a four-year losing streak in the series and the Ducks' three-year run of conference titles; 2. Kelly leaves Eugene for the NFL; 3. NCAA sanctions for the Ducks.

Let's just say more than a few Beavers fans would be high-fiving each other. And there would probably be more than a few Washington Huskies fans trying to get in on that action.

Or ... or ...

Oregon beats the Beavers for a fifth consecutive time, finagles its way into the national title game and then beats, say, Alabama for the school's first national title. Then Kelly announces he's staying in Eugene "for life" and the NCAA gently slaps the Ducks' wing.

So, yeah, there's a lot going on here.

Still, amid all these possibilities and speculations, good and bad for both programs, there is only one thing that either can control: Saturday's game.

Yes, it's pretty darn big.

Oregon is No. 1 in AP, coaches' polls

November, 11, 2012
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After Alabama lost at home to Texas A&M on Saturday, Oregon climbed to No. 1 in both the AP and the coaches' poll, the latter poll counting in the BCS standings.

The Ducks are also expected to be No. 1 in the Harris Poll, which will be released later today.

The top three in both polls is the same: Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame, the three remaining unbeaten teams. Alabama is No. 4 and Georgia No. 5 in the AP poll, but their order is reversed in the coaches' poll.

Oregon was an overwhelming No. 1 in both polls, earning 45 of 60 No. 1 votes in the AP and 44 of 59 with the coaches. Kansas State got 14 No. 1 votes in both polls, and Notre Dame got one No. 1 vote in both polls.

While Oregon is in control in the polls, it still is projected to be behind Kansas State in the BCS standings, which will be released tonight. The Wildcats are ranked higher by the computers, which make up 1/3 of the BCS formula.

Oregon's computer ranking should go up substantially over the next three weeks, as it plays ranked teams Stanford and Oregon State the next two weekends before playing a presumably ranked team in the Pac-12 title game.

But it doesn't really matter: Ranked No. 1 or No. 2, that means the Ducks would play for the national title for the second time in three years.

As for the rest of the Pac-12 in the AP poll, Stanford was 14th, Oregon State 15th, UCLA 17th and USC 21st.

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