Ducks aim to cap strange season with statement
At the end of this most daunting of seasons, the 25th-ranked Oregon Ducks figure to experience one of their more unique challenges when they line up against the No. 10 Iowa State Cyclones on Saturday, Jan. 2, in the Fiesta Bowl.
That is, of course, assuming COVID-19 doesn't scuttle the contest, slated for a 1 p.m. start on ESPN from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Iowa State might not be an established football power, but power is part of what helped the 8-3 Cyclones to one of the most successful seasons in program history — and the program's first major bowl appearance.
"It's the most physical team we've seen on tape, and I'm talking about since I've been here at Oregon," Ducks coach Mario Cristobal said.
In a game with a variety of intriguing storylines — particularly at the quarterback position — Cristobal will be focused on how well his team responds to Iowa State's physical approach, which starts, but certainly isn't limited to, the offensive and defensive lines.
It's normal, of course, for a football coach to praise an upcoming opponent. When Cristobal talks about Iowa State, what stands out is his impression of the Cyclones' physicality all over the field, and the way they stress opponents with unique schemes on both defense and offense.
Among the challenges for the Ducks will be slowing down a balanced attack led by the leading rusher in the nation and a quarterback who ranks 15th nationally in passing yardage, and solving a unique and aggressive defense that uses three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
"That 3-3-5 stack approach is something very different and unique to us. We haven't played against it," Cristobal said.
The Ducks have faced some talented running backs — Jermar Jefferson comes to mind. But, slowing down teams determined to run the ball has been a challenge. And, Cyclones' 6-1, 215-pound sophomore Breece Hall is strong, fast and patient enough to wait for a play to develop. The nation's leading rusher, Hall is averaging 130.5 yards a game. He has rushed for 19 touchdowns in 11 games.
"You're looking at a guy who runs with power, runs with speed," Cristobal said. "He can hit it and slash right now and he can patiently wait and ride that wall (of blockers)."
Iowa State lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. The Cyclones beat the Sooners in the regular season. Take away an opening 31-14 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, a game in which the Rajun' Cajuns scored on kickoff and punt returns and held the Cyclones scoreless in the second half, and Iowa State's only losses are by three points to then-No. 6 Oklahoma State and the 27-21 loss to Oklahoma in the conference title game after falling behind 24-7 at halftime.
With 16 seniors on the roster, the Cyclones have performed well in tight games. Of their eight wins, four were by a touchdown or less.
"They do a great job creating explosive plays, and they do a great job limiting explosive plays," Cristobal said.
While they lost the Big 12 title game, the Cyclones had nine players on the Big 12's all-conference first team. Hall was the conference's offensive player of the year, junior linebacker Mike Rose was the defensive player of the year and freshman safety Isheem Young was the co-freshman of the year in the Big 12.
"You didn't have to read that to know it. When you turn on tape, our guys right away knew, that is the most physical team we have seen. They're explosive, they're tough, they'll knock you back," Cristobal said.
Aside from the friendship between Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough and Iowa State's Brock Purdy, who will both return to their home state for this game, another QB question entering the game is how big of a role Anthony Brown might play for the Ducks. The senior transfer from Boston College waited until the Pac-12 championship game to see the field for Oregon, then threw a TD pass on his first play, converted a key fourth down and threw for a second touchdown on a third down.
His performance showed poise and maturity, and makes for an interesting subplot in the buildup to the game.
Big picture, a win for the Ducks would be the second in a New Year's bowl game in as many seasons and continue momentum for a program loaded with young talent and continuing to add touted recruits.
"A lot of teams are opting out (of bowl games), Shough noted. "That's just not who we are. No matter the circumstance, or who we're playing, we just love to play ball, and we love to have the opportunity to play another game."
Beyond what this game means for the Ducks, it is the only bowl game for a Pac-12 team. A win for Oregon over Iowa State isn't going to drastically shift national perception of the conference, but it certainly will play better nationally than a loss. And, as the Ducks eye bigger things in 2021, a win on Jan. 2 could boost Oregon's position in preseason polls — which could help the program position itself for College Football Playoff consideration.
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