SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Oregon is so well known for its high-powered offense that its defense often gets overlooked.
Such is the case this season with the Ducks averaging more than 50 points.
But K-State is expecting a challenge from Oregon’s defense during the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. After watching replays of their games, the Wildcats say they respect the Ducks’ equally on both sides of the ball.
“It’s collective,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “You are looking at a football team that everyone wants to talk about their offense. I understand why, but they are a very talented defensive football team and a very productive football team.”
Oregon is most productive in the turnover department. The Ducks lead the nation with 24 interceptions and are tied with Kent State for the national lead in takeaways with 38.
Though K-State rarely turns the ball over – Collin Klein threw seven interceptions and the team lost three fumbles – players might have to be more careful than usual against the Ducks.
They emphasize takeaways so much that defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti devotes a segment of each practice to them. He makes his players run tip drills, strip drills and two fumble drills. One is for country fumbles – when the ball bounces in free space and players try to scoop it and run – and the other is for city fumbles – when lots of bodies are around and players dive on the ball.
“We emphasize it, so we work on it,” Aliotti said. “And usually when you work on something and work on it, it certainly helps you.”
Sophomore cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is Oregon’s most effective defender when it comes to turnovers. He has forced six fumbles and intercepted four passes. Kiko Alonso has also made four interceptions while forcing two fumbles.
It might not be so easy for them to duplicate those numbers against the Wildcats. Aliotta said he has never encountered an opponent that lost three fumbles in a season.
Fast start – K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel takes a cautious approach at the start of games, and waiting for the opposition to reveal its defensive strategy. He thinks that gives the Wildcats an advantage in the final three quarters, and is why they often play their best in the second half.
But against a team with Oregon’s firepower, he knows K-State might not be able to wait that long.
“We haven’t been a very explosive first-quarter team,” Dimel said. “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.”
Covering Chris — The job of covering K-State’s top wide receiver, 6-foot-1, 229-pound senior Chris Harper, will fall squarely with Oregon sophomore Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Ekpre-Olomu has had a breakthrough season for the Ducks, earning All-Pac 12 honors thanks to his 58 tackles, four interceptions, 15 pass break-ups and six forced fumbles.
“There are still a lot of things I could improve on, but I think I’ve shown I can play man coverage against almost any receiver,” Ekpre-Olumu said. “I feel like that helps our safeties because they know I’m good over there, I have their back and can protect them on the outside.”
Ekpre-Olomu, to his credit, has done a thorough job scouting Harper, who leads K-State with 786 receiving yards, for Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl.
“(Harper) is a big, physical receiver,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “When he gets to the top of the route, he’s going to pull the ball out of the air, and he can jump so well he will go up and catch passes. If you want to have a chance, you’ve got to meet him at the highest point.”
Tannahill’s biggest challenge — Kansas State senior tight end Travis Tannahill has done battle with some of the best defensive ends in the country in his career, including head-to-head matchups with current NFL stars Aldon Smith and Von Miller.
So when he talks about the player he’ll be tasked with going up against on Thursday, Oregon defensive end/outside linebacker Dion Jordan, the words carry some weight.
“I’ve had those matchups with first-round picks, but (Jordan) is the best pass-rusher I’ve ever faced,” said Tannahill, an All-Big 12 pick. “He takes it to another level.”
Jordan (6-7, 245 pounds), is projected as a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“I’m excited for this, excited to get it on film and show people at the next level what I can do,” Tannahill said. “If you’re a half-step slow or hesitate even for a second, (Jordan) will blow right past you.”