5 Things To Watch: Fiesta Bowl
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Oregon football team will look to win consecutive New Year's Six games for the second time in a decade Saturday when the Ducks face No. 10 Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Ducks (4-2) captured their second consecutive Pac-12 title by defeating Southern California in the conference championship game. The Cyclones (8-3) lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game.
Saturday's game will be televised by ESPN, with Dave Pasch handling play by play, Mike Golic providing analysis and Quint Kessenich contributing reporting from the sidelines.
Some storylines to follow in the game …
1. The recent bowl histories of these programs are different; how will that affect each team in the big stage Saturday night?
Oregon is coming off a Rose Bowl victory last season, and so has proven it can win a game of this magnitude. Then again, the Ducks had playoff dreams this season, falling short of that goal due to two midseason losses before rallying to win the conference title.
Iowa State, on the other hand, is playing in a New Year's Six bowl for the first time ever. The Cyclones are playing in a bowl for the fourth straight year, a school record, but this will be a new experience for their program.
2. After clicking the last two games, can Oregon's defense keep it rolling?
The Ducks were outstanding defensively in 2019, but struggled to play at the same disruptive level early in the 2020 season. The low point was allowing 269 rushing yards in a loss to Oregon State, but the Ducks tightened up a week later at California, albeit in another loss.
That continued against USC in the Pac-12 title game. The Oregon defense bottled up the Trojans on the ground, forced turnovers and generally looked back to the level of the 2019 unit. More of the same in the Fiesta Bowl would be most welcome.
3. Playing elite defense won't be easy given that the Ducks are facing one of the nation's elite running backs in the Fiesta Bowl.
Breece Hall is a consensus all-American, the Big 12 offensive player of the year and a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the best running back in the nation this season. He has rushed for 1,436 yards in 11 games, second-most in the country this season, and is also second in the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns.
The Ducks have described him as a patient runner who, once he does find a seem, has the explosiveness to turn any run into a big play. That sounds a bit like Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson, who ran for 226 yards against Oregon — the week before the defense really began to lock in.
4. Iowa State plays an unconventional personnel group on defense that will present a challenge for Oregon's offense.
The Cyclones use a 3-3-5 grouping that the Ducks don't often seen. It will be imperative for center Alex Forsyth and the rest of the UO offensive line to identifying how Iowa State is aligned pre-snap and then communicate that throughout the line so the Ducks can get their blocking schemes set.
On the back end, Iowa State likes to use five defensive backs — as Oregon often does — but instead of a nickel player like the Ducks use in Jamal Hill, the Cyclones employ a third "high" safety that allows for a bunch of different coverage options. "Those guys are buzzing all over the place," UO offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. "That's what makes it the most challenging."
5. Amid all this analysis of matchups on the field Saturday, let's not lose sight of the big picture.
Friday was the 25th anniversary of Oregon's loss to Colorado in the 1996 Cotton Bowl. Coming on the heels of a Rose Bowl loss to Penn State, the Ducks had qualified for consecutive New Year's Six bowls for the first time in program history — but lost both.
Back on campus, the powers that be convened. What would it take not just to qualify for big games like that, but to win them? Investments were made. The Moshofksy Center was constructed. Autzen Stadium was expanded. A few years later came the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.
In 2011, Oregon won the Rose Bowl, and the next season they became Fiesta Bowl champions. The Ducks had made it back to New Year's Six bowls in consecutive years, and won both.
Saturday, they'll try to do it again, for the second time in a decade. Either way, it shouldn't get lost that what Oregon football is accomplishing these days wasn't the norm for a long time, is hard to sustain, and is worth taking a deep breath to appreciate.