After the Pac-12 had lost its first two bowls to the Big 12 this season, the conference relied on the #4 Oregon Ducks for redemption against Big 12 champions Kansas State. Ranked fifth at the end of the regular season, the Wildcats would have reached the national championship game if not for a loss to Baylor, while the Ducks would have met them there if not for a loss to Stanford on the same day. As proved the case last year, then, the Fiesta Bowl featured a pair of offensively oriented teams who narrowly had lost a place in the national championship game to a pair of defensive squads from further east. A highly anticipated game, the Arizona showdown featured a Heisman finalist in Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein against the three-headed Oregon hydra of star freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, senior running back Kenjon Barner, and versatile speedster De’Anthony Thomas.
On the first play of the game, De’Anthony Thomas delivered an intimidating opening statement by returning the kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. The fastest player in college football wove around several defenders in the early stages of his run but received vital blocks from his teammates near the end of it. True to his reputation, Chip Kelly called a two-point conversion to intensify the pressure on Kansas State, which succeeded on a running play by defensive end Dion Jordan that appeared to catch the defense by surprise. After Oregon had scored eight points in twelve seconds, the Wildcats knew the magnitude of the challenge that confronted them. They responded with a key third-down completion from Klein that brought the ball across midfield, but soon a fourth-and-one situation loomed. An unimaginative play call from Snyder, a quarterback keeper, failed to produce the first down and turned the ball back to the Ducks offense for their first appearance of the game. But a pair of penalties on the same series forced Oregon to punt in a surprising start considering their explosiveness. When a third-down sack of Klein stopped the Wildacts deep in their own territory, though, the Ducks quickly regained possession near midfield.
While Mariota continued to look uneasy in this showcase game with uncertain, mistimed throws, he paced the running attack in unison with Barner on the next drive. When he reached the fringes of the red zone, he found Thomas for a 23-yard touchdown on a catch-and-run play that again displayed the elusiveness of the Oregon speed demon. Unable to adjust to his explosiveness, Kansas State attempted tackles in vain as he whirled between and around purple jerseys. An excellent kick return gave the Big 12 champion the spark that they needed to start the next drive, which plowed down the field behind several penetrating runs. As the quarter waned, Kansas State faced a short third-down play near the Oregon 10, which Klein converted on the same type of keeper that had failed on fourth down earlier.
Oregon 15, Kansas State 0
Poised on the brink of the end zone to start the frame, the Wildcats survived consecutive negative plays to leap onto the scoreboard when Klein recognized an opening on the end of the Oregon defense and gained just enough space to make contact with the pylon. The timely lunge seemed to galvanize Kansas State’s defense, which stopped the Ducks for the gain of just a single yard. Starting to settle into a better rhythm, Klein alternated runs with passing plays in sequences that illustrated the senior’s poise and experience. His receivers managed to dodge the fast Oregon defenders to add plenty of yards after the catch. When they reached an and-goal opportunity, however, the drive stalled on a negative third-down play that forced Kansas State to accept a short field goal. In a game filled with explosive kick returns, Oregon started at its own 44 but again produced diffident play in the passing game. Rarely had the most ferocious offense in college football failed to gain first downs on consecutive drives. Such was the case when a fake punt could not move the chains in a rare example of when Kelly’s bold play-calling backfired. Exploiting the momentum shift, Klein converted a third-and-ten play to a former Ducks receiver in the open field.
When a false start penalty prevented Snyder from attempting another fourth-and-one conversion, though, Kansas State missed a 40-yard field goal that handed the initiative back to their opponents. With just a minute to play and a lead, many teams would have shifted into conservative mode and simply hoped to run out the clock until halftime. But Oregon is not one of those teams, nor is Kelly a coach who knows the meaning of “conservative.” Having converted only one first down since the first four minutes of the game, Mariota and Barner broke free on a series of long plays that culminated in a touchdown toss from the former to the latter without any defender in the vicinity. An interception on the last play of the half took Chip Kelly’s team into the intermission with a double-digit lead, a situation in which they never had lost a game during his tenure.
Oregon 22, Kansas State 10
A crucial possession beckoned for the Wildcats at the start of the third quarter, when miscommunication forced them to call a timeout in the opening minute. The wasted interruption did not prevent the drive from stagnating inside midfield. Under pressure on a third-and-long of his own, Mariota scrambled for a key first down before finding massive tight end Colt Lyerla for another two plays later. Suddenly steamrolling towards the red zone, Oregon accelerated its pace with each productive play until they stalled at the Wildcats 15. Not a strength for most of the season, Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado atoned in part for his miss against Stanford by drilling the ensuing field goal through the center of the uprights. Despite a strong kickoff return, Kansas State produced no yards on the next possession as Klein continued to absorb punishing blows when and after he released the ball. Rampaging across midfield on a long scamper after a penalty, Mariota devoured 32 yards of turf before turning the offensive reins over to Barner for carries inside the red zone. A third-down conversion set up a short touchdown run from Mariota into the corner of the end zone with a fine showcase of speed and timing.
Although Kansas State blocked the extra-point attempt, Oregon recorded a tackle inside the end zone for the first NCAA one-point safety in eight years. Another three-and-out from the Wildcats limited them to just 11 yards in the quarter and handed their opponents an opportunity to burst the game open. Pass interference moved the ball into Kansas State territory, but Mariota struggled to find open receivers under pressure from the pass rush. On a fourth-and-one from near the 33-yard line, Kelly called a simple run by Barner that succeeded in moving the chains. Kansas State managed to stuff the Ducks senior running back on consecutive plays that set up a longer fourth-down situation, where a sack of Mariota produced a turnover on downs that the Big 12 team urgently needed. Shifting back to the running game, the Wildcats marched deep into Oregon territory on a scramble by Klein that benefited from a missed tackle.
Oregon 32, Kansas State 10
The grinding drive from Kansas State progressed methodically, showing no urgency despite the three-touchdown deficit late in the game. The Oregon defense managed by Nick Aliotti also managed to stop the Wildcats short of moving the chains on many early downs, which drained the clock further. More than three minutes into the quarter, Klein found Hubert through a mass of twisting bodies for just the second Kansas State touchdown of the game. Curiously, neither quarterback had posted especially strong numbers to that stage, completing barely half of their passes. The latest of Mariota’s incompletions, a low throw intended for De’Anthony Thomas, resulted in another three-and-out as Oregon failed to take significant time off the clock. Pinned at their own 8 following a penalty on the punt return, Kansas State escaped the dangerous field position with a smart short pass followed by a run up the middle. As false starts continued to dog them, they faced a key third-and-nine from inside their 30, where a Klein incompletion towards the sideline forced a punt that essentially snuffed out their last hope. Turning to Barner in plays designed to drain the clock, Oregon slowed their legendary speed between plays for a purpose.
The indefatigable running back carried his offense on his back in his last several minutes, producing first down after first down on relentless runs between the tackles, followed by a race to the edge that brought the Ducks into the red zone. Their last score of the 2012-2013 season and, most likely, of coach Chip Kelly’s college career came on a short field goal from Maldonado. On Kansas State’s first play afterwards, Klein threw his second interception of the game to seal a second BCS bowl title for the Pac-12. Two of the greatest coaches in college football history met on the field soon afterwards for a respectful handshake and long conversation.
Final score: Oregon 35, Kansas State 17
Confirming what the regular season had suggested, the Fiesta Bowl proved the Pac-12’s superiority to the Big 12 at the top of the conference just as the previous bowls between them had demonstrated the latter’s superiority at the middle levels. The Pac-12 finished the season as the only conference to win multiple BCS bowls, more than compensating for its disappointments in lower levels of the bowl hierarchy. While the Fiesta Bowl may have featured less drama than most expected, Oregon left no doubt about its ability to vie with Stanford for the honor of reaching the national championship game at the Rose Bowl next year.