SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Few games better illustrate the razor-thin margin for error that exists in college football than this year’s Fiesta Bowl. Just look at the journeys Kansas State and Oregon took to get here.
They both won 11 games, they both had players receive Heisman Trophy votes and they both moved the ball at an impressive rate.
The Wildcats pummeled traditional power Miami, beat Oklahoma on the road and won the Big 12. The Ducks won each of their games by huge margins, averaging more than 50 points.
“Other than the title game, this is going to be the most exciting game of the bowl season,” Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said. “At one point they were No. 1 and No. 2. You couldn’t hope for a better matchup.”
Indeed, after both teams won their first 10 games, the Wildcats were ranked first in the BCS standings and Oregon was No. 1 in the national polls.
“This game could have been the national championship,” Oregon linebacker Boseko Lokombo said. “A couple weeks ago, that’s where we were both headed.”
So what happened? One awful day — Nov. 17 — happened.
In the span of about five hours, both teams went from dreaming of a title to out of the championship hunt.
Both teams turned in their lone poor performance, and did it in prime time. K-State took the field as a heavy favorite against Baylor, which had a losing record at the time, and lost 52-24. Then Oregon took on Stanford with the Pac-12 North championship on the line and the Ducks’ normally potent offense couldn’t get going. They lost 17-14 in overtime.
Just like that, everything changed.
If ESPN ever searches for an interesting day to turn into a “30 for 30” documentary, Nov. 17 would work perfectly.
“It still hurts,” K-State cornerback Allen Chapman said.
“It’s going to be a hard one forever,” K-State quarterback Collin Klein has said.
“I’ll never forget how bad we lost,” K-State linebacker Jarell Childs said. “We hadn’t played like that all year.”
Oregon football players can relate.
“Stanford outplayed us,” Oregon running back Kenjon Barner said. “There’s not too much more to say about that game. We didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
“We didn’t communicate the way we needed to,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “A lot of us were on different pages.”
Both losses were so out of place that they stick out like a red dress in a black-and-white film.
For Oregon, Mariota had one of his worst passing games, completing 21 of 37 attempts and taking three sacks while throwing an interception. Barner wasn’t his explosive self either, rushing for 66 yards on 21 carries. That left the Ducks struggling to convert on third down, going 4 for 17.
Stanford rushed for 200 yards and outgained Oregon 411-405 to win a close game despite turning the ball over three times. Ducks kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed two field goals, including one in overtime, and Oregon couldn’t protect a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter.
Oregon scored 59 points a week earlier against California and 48 a game later against Oregon State.
“We had some very uncharacteristic errors at key positions that cost us a ton of times for a lot of reasons,” Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “Why would you do something that you have never done before in this situation? Who knows?
“The same thing happened with K-State and Baylor. There was no magic pill. They missed a couple tackles in that game that I didn’t see them make in any other situation.”
Missed tackles, blown assignments, injuries and a questionable offensive strategy cost K-State against the Bears.
The Wildcats had to play without top safety Ty Zimmerman, who watched the game on crutches, and No. 2 receiver Tyler Lockett played through an ankle injury. K-State wasn’t prepared to stop Baylor’s running attack. Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk led Baylor to more than 300 rushing yards against a defense that had previously stuffed the run.
“We didn’t play or prepare very well,” Chapman said. “We took things for granted a little bit.”
Baylor jumped out to a big lead before halftime, and K-State abandoned its running game in the second half. That allowed the Bears to take chances on defense, and Klein ended up throwing three interceptions. He threw four in his other 11 games.
“The score got away from us,” K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “It wasn’t like the season before where we were used to being behind and coming back. This year we weren’t behind very much. If we were it was very close and manageable. Once it became a larger lead we lost our identity.”
Both teams had to deal with the crushing losses and try to move on.
“The hardest thing was dealing with the missed opportunity of winning a championship,” Chapman said. “It’s hard to get to a championship. It’s hard to win a championship. We were so close.”
One awful day was all that stood in the way.
“It is kind of weird how that happened,” Lokombo said. “Maybe it was destiny.”