GLENDALE, Ariz. If Oregon coach Chip Kelly leaves for the NFL, De'Anthony Thomas, Marcus Mariota and the Ducks' defensive players gave him the ultimate good-bye gift Thursday night.
Kelly's Ducks beat Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl, putting an accent on Kelly's four-year tenure as coach before a crowd of 70,242 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"Our players won the game for us," Kelly said. "Can't say enough about our defense.
"We lost to a real good Stanford team ... but these guysunderstand what it's all about, it's about finishing."
Thomas electrified the Ducks and their fans, taking the opening kickoff 94 yards for the touchdown. Mariota tossed a couple first-half TD passes and rushed for a third-quarter score. And, the UO defense contained Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein.
The Ducks finished 12-1, after having knocked on the door to the
national championship for the third consecutive year. A Nov. 17 loss to Stanford cost the Ducks the opportunity to play for the BCS title, which Notre Dame and Alabama will do on Monday in Miami. Instead, the Ducks reveled in seeking the consolation prize, another BCS win. They played spirited football and controlled the game against the Wildcats (11-2).
Oregon seniors went out having played in four consecutive BCS games, beating Wisconsin and Kansas State in the past two.
So, now the real story unfolds ... does Kelly, 46-7 as a head coach at Oregon, jump at an offer from NFL team? Cleveland, Philadelphia and Buffalo have set up interviews with Kelly, who's represented by agent David Dunn.
"It's more of a fact-finding mission," Kelly says, "finding out if it fits or doesn't fit."
Judging by their play, the Ducks didn't let the Kelly NFL distraction, or disappointment of not playing for the BCS title, get them down. The Ducks made plays in all three phases.
On offense, the Ducks didn't have a turnover. Mariota went 12 of 24 for 166 yards and two TDs, and rushed eight times for 62 yards. Barner overcame a slow start to finish with 143 yards on 31 carries and a TD reception.
"They made us earn everything that we did, especially on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "I think our guys found a way to kind of overcome that."
Mariota made a lot of pivotal plays with his legs, and found Thomas (screen) and Barner (in the flat) for touchdowns, with the playmaker reaching the end zone with great runs.
"There are so many playmakers here, I've just got to get them the ball and watch what they do," Mariota said. "I like to think of myself as a distributor."
Klein couldn't get the Wildcats going. He went 17 of 32 for 151 yards with one score and two interceptions. The Wildcats rushed for only 132 yards on 37 carries; Klein had 30 yards on 13 carries.
"We knew we had to get into the backfield and put some hats on him," linebacker Kiko Alonso said.
Oregon finished with 383 yards offense, including 219 on the ground. K-State had 283 yards, 132 on the ground, despite a time of possession advantage.
"We got beat by a better team tonight," K-State coach Bill Snyder said, "combined with the fact that we let down from time to time."
Thomas' big play, some stout defense and a last-minute first-half drive
gave Oregon a 22-10 halftime lead.
Then, after a stop by the UO defense, the Ducks cranked up the tempo
and moved for more points.
Mariota scrambled on third-and-11 for 13 yards, connected on a pass to Colt Lyerla, and Kenjon Barner, bottled up in the first half, bolted for 20 yards.
The Ducks had first down at the K-State 15 on Mariota's 15-yard pass to Josh Huff, but Mariota missed a wide-open receiver and threw two more incompletions. Maligned kicker Alejandro Maldonado connected on a 32-yard field goal, and it was 25-10.
A three-and-out by the UO defense, and Mariota and crew appeared to put the game out of reach midway through the third quarter.
Mariota scampered for 32 yards, Barner ran for yardage, and Mariota scored on a 2-yard TD run.
K-State blocked Maldonado's extra-point attempt, but an unusual
one-point safety the ball pitched backward by K-State and the Wildcats' Allen Chapman recovering but being tackled in the end zone still gave the Ducks the one point, and it was 32-10, with Klein not exhibiting the offensive explosion needed to get the Wildcats back into the game.
The defensive stops were "huge," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "We did some things differently (on offense), and players did a great job of adjusting."
The Wildcats pecked away and broke through the UO defense, but it took 11 plays and 5:00 of clock time to go 72 yards a great drive, if the game hadn't got out of control already and score on Klein's 10-yard pass to John Hubert. Oregon led 32-17 with 11:35 left.
Oregon had to punt, but the defense forced another K-State punt.
The Ducks drove methodically for their final score. They used more than five minutes on nine offensive plays Â all rushes by Barner Â and then Maldonado kicked a 23-yard field goal to give Oregon a 35-17 lead with 2:27 left.
On Kansas State's first play after the UO field goal, Klein's pass up the field was easily intercepted by safety Erick Dargan, his second pick of the game.
The Ducks exploded to start the game, thanks to Thomas, who had TD runs of 91 and 64 yards last year in the Rose Bowl. He fielded a fine K-State kickoff in a corner, slithered past would-be tacklers and sprinted to the end zone on his 94-yard kickoff return, finishing with a track sprinter's lunge for effect.
"I just feel like my role in this game was just to be a momentum-builder and a game-changer," Thomas said. "Once I seen that opening field, I just wanted to get to the end zone fast and celebrate with my team and get ready for the next play."
Said Lyerla: "It sealed the win."
Long snapper Jeff Palmer then tossed to Dion Jordan, who scored on a 2-point conversion typical Oregon stuff after the first score.
"I saw the numbers right, called it, and (Palmer) threw it over there and we scored," punter/holder Jackson Rice said.
The UO defense stymied Klein on the Wildcats' first two drives,
stopping him on fourth down and then forcing a punt on Michael Clay's third-down sack. Between the K-State possessions, Oregon looked bad, offensively, with two penalties and two minus-yardage runs.
But the Ducks got things going to lead 15-0. Thomas ran for 14 yards, and Mariota scrambled for nine on third-and-7. Then Thomas took a screen pass, got a great downfield block from center Hroniss Grasu and lunged over the top of a K-State player on a 23-yard TD reception score.
It looked like a rout.
But the Wildcats rallied, with a dink-and-dunk offensive approach, some Angelo Pease running and a third-down pass interference penalty on UO's Terrance Mitchell. Kansas State went 58 yards on 12 plays and 5:12 clock time and scored on Klein's 6-yard TD run.
K-State limited Barner's running in the first half (23 yards, seven carries), including on UO's next two drives. The Wildcats drew within 15-10, despite a great opportunity for a touchdown, earning first down at the UO 4 after Klein's 21-yard hitch pass-and-run to Harper, the former UO player. But Pease was stopped for one yard, Klein none and Pease for minus-5, and K-State settled for Anthony Cantele's 25-yard field goal. Another 6:36 had gone off the clock.
Rice, UO's punter, tried a fake punt after another UO drive
that went nowhere, but K-State stopped him at midfield, short of the first down.
"They did a really good job of being ready for it," said Rice, who had a successful fake punt run in the same stadium against Auburn in the BCS title game two years ago. "We're a team that likes to get a little tricky, and they were ready for it. I took the ball, and they had guys right there. I couldn't do much."
Clearly with momentum, Kansas State moved into position for
another score, with Klein's 12-yard pass to Pease and his 11-yard pass to Harper on third-and-10. But the Ducks called a key timeout, to preserve some clock.
On fourth-and-1 at the UO 18, Kansas State left tackle Cornelius Lewis got whistled for false start. So Cantele tried a 40-yard field goal, and missed.
Said Oregon safety Brian Jackson: "It's already a win if they're in the red zone and they come away with just three points. For us to come away with a missed field goal, that says a lot about us as a team. We just kept it going at all times."
The Ducks took the 60 seconds of time left in the first half, used
tight end Lyerla and quickly scored. Mariota hit Lyerla for 23 yards,
Barner rushed for 13, and Mariota and Lyerla hooked up for 17 to the K-State 24.
"With the play-action, of course the safeties are going to bite, and it put me right on top of them over the middle," Lyerla said.
Mariota then found Barner in the flat, and the running back scooted 24 yards for the pass-play score with 14 seconds left. The drive: five plays, 77 yards, 46 seconds.
The Ducks got their tempo going, and got Lyerla involved.
"We had a couple plays in two of the previous drives that were really close," Helfrich said, "one where Kenjon just couldn't find the ball (in the lights) that would have probably been a touchdown, and another play-action deal we thought we had. The guys just did a good job of putting the foot on the accelerator, playing at a different tempo. ... (Lyerla) had some huge plays, just with his ability to shed tacklers, or require multiple tacklers, that got us going."
It was 22-10 at halftime. Oregon had 25 plays for 170 yards, and
K-State 43 for 170. The Wildcats had the ball for 21:09 of clock time to UO's 8:51.
But Klein didn't hurt the Ducks in the half he was 11 of 18 for 104 yards, with 10 rushes for 10 net yards and the UO defense had stepped up to support the offense, Barner and Mariota.
Oregon 15 7 10 3 35
Kansas State 0 10 0 7 17
OREGON De'Anthony Thomas 94 kickoff return (Dion Jordan run) 14:48
OREGON Thomas 23 pass from Marcus Mariota (Alejandro Maldonado kick)
K-STATE Collin Klein 6 run (Anthony Cantele kick) 13:26
K-STATE Cantele 25 FG 5:21
OREGON Kenjon Barner 24 pass from Mariota (Maldonado kick) 0:14
OREGON Maldonado 32 FG 11:01
OREGON Mariota 2 run (UO safety) 8:03
K-STATE John Hubert 10 pass from Klein (Cantele kick) 11:35
OREGON Â Maldonado 23 FG 2:27