After the final seconds ticked off and the Oregon Ducks were crowned the Fiesta Bowl champions by beating the Kansas State Wildcats, 35-17, plenty of folks looked to the high-powered offense as the reason. However, the real story—and the true key—to the Ducks victory was the defense led by coordinator Nick Aliotti.
No, the Ducks are not Alabama or Notre Dame when it comes to total defense or their scoring defensive effort; they ranked 49th and 26th in those respective categories entering the game. Yet, on this Thursday night in Arizona, on the big BCS bowl stage, they put together an effort that defensive football fans can certainly call impressive.
Whether you are a stats guy or a football guy, the point is clear: Nick Aliotti did a number on Bill Snyder's fifth-ranked Wildcats. The Ducks held the nation's eighth-ranked scoring offense to 17 points—23.7 below their 40.7 average. Oregon also limited Kansas State to 283 total yards, well below their 411.7 per-game average.
Where Collin Klein, the third-place finisher for the Heisman, was concerned, Oregon took care of business as well. Aliotti's plan held Klein to just 30 yards on the ground and 17-of-32 passing for 151 yards. More importantly, the normally efficient Klein threw two interceptions against just one touchdown.
Oregon's effort on defense was spearheaded by a dynamic approach that involved unique looks to crowd the line of scrimmage and keep fresh bodies in the game. The biggest adjustment made by Aliotti, the seasoned defensive coordinator, was using defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli as an off-the-line run player.
The big defensive tackle was lining up off the ball, in a 2-point stance, and moving side to side in a way that most folks do not expect a 320-pound run-stuffer to move. Aliotti also had players like Kiko Alonso, Dion Jordan, Boseko Lokombo, Michael Clay and Tony Washington flying around disrupting Kansas State's plan at and behind the line of scrimmage.
It was a great effort in a tremendous scheme where players used their speed to create problems for the Wildcats early and often. Once the Ducks offense got up on this methodical K-State team, the defense was able to truly force the issue and frustrate Bill Snyder's squad.
Chip Kelly is going to get a lot of credit for the Ducks' second BCS bowl win in as many years, and rightfully so. Marcus Mariota was named the game's MVP for the way he was able to use his arm and legs to help put points on the board. And, of course, De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner are going to be praised for their showings.
However, this Oregon Ducks defense was the most impressive part of the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. They played fast. They played smart. They played tough. In the end, they were, along with Nick Aliotti, the true difference in a ball game most people expected to be a shoot-out.