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'Blessed' Mariota right where he wants to be

It’s coming up — Kansas State (11-1) taking on Oregon (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3 (ESPN) at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

For the Ducks, it’ll be 39 days off between beating Oregon State on Nov. 24 and meeting the Wildcats. And, for the first-year players like redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, it means almost a complete year of preparation and play since the Ducks’ Jan. 2 Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin.

“I love the game,” Mariota says, of the long stretch of football. “I’m glad to be here. There’s still a side of me that wants to go home and hang out with the family.

“But I’m just glad to be here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I get to spend this time of year with guys I’ve been around for a while. It’s been a fun process.”

Meanwhile, Mariota gets to finish off the Heisman Trophy trifecta of meetings in the Fiesta Bowl. He has ties to fellow Hawaiian Manti Te’o of Notre Dame and fellow redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M — Mariota played at the rival high school of the Irish star linebacker, St. Louis High, and he met QB Manziel at an Oregon camp before they both signed with their respective schools.

Then, in the Fiesta Bowl game and festivities, Mariota gets to meet K-State quarterback Collin Klein, the third of the Heisman finalists. It was Manziel, Te’o and Klein finishing 1-2-3 in Heisman voting.

“It shows how small this world is,” Mariota says. “I’m very blessed to eventually meet all three of them. I get to meet three Heisman finalists, not a lot of people get to say that. I’m very blessed.”

And, had he not stumbled against Stanford, Mariota might have been right alongside the three of them as Heisman finalists.

Senior Rob Beard says there has been competition for place-kicking duties in practice. Sophomore Alejandro Maldonado kicked in the final four games, missing a key field goal against Stanford along the way.

“I’m hoping to kick field goals, and I should be getting a chance to do that,” says Beard, of the Fiesta Bowl. “I don’t know if (coaches are) saying it’s a competition, but I feel there should be one. I’m hoping to get the job back. I envision myself doing the kicking duties.”

Says long snapper Jeff Palmer, of he and holder Jackson Rice and either Beard or Maldonado: “I don’t even know who the kicker is right now. It’s been a competition this whole month. Whoever it comes down to, I’m confident in them.”

Former Duck Chris Harper leads Kansas State with 50 receptions, excelling as a possession receiver as a senior.

It makes UO coach Chip Kelly kind of scratch his head. Kelly says Harper left the Duck program after the 2008 season to play quarterback at a school close to home. He played close to home — Harper is from Wichita, Kan. — but he stayed at receiver for K-State in Manhattan, Kan.

“I’m happy for him,” Kelly says. “He wanted to go home. He’s home.

“He left here because he wanted to be a quarterback. We moved him to receiver, and he wanted to be a quarterback. He said he was going somewhere closer to home to play quarterback. Did I envision him playing receiver (at K-State)? No. He could have played receiver here.”

— Jason Vondersmith