Dec 18, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) throws the ball under pressure from Oregon Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) in the second quarter during the Pac-12 Championship at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State has a really good football team — just ask Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal.
The Ducks’ head coach could not have been more complimentary of the team Matt Campbell and his staff have built during the 2020 season ahead of Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl clash between Oregon and the Cyclones at 3 p.m. central time in Glendale, Az.
Sure, the Cyclones have never been in a postseason game with this sort of national profile, but Cristobal certainly has no lack of respect for what Iowa State has done during its run through the Big 12 gauntlet.
“I’m extremely impressed with what they have done, what they are continuing to do,” Cristobal said during a Zoom call with the media on Tuesday. “And our players fully understand that this is the best football team we have played and that their best football is ahead of them, too. So everyone is really looking forward to this opportunity.”
Saturday’s game marks the first time these two programs have come toe-to-toe on the gridiron and will be just Oregon’s seventh game during this COVID-19 marred college football season.
Despite the shortened slate, there have been plenty of ups and downs for the Pac-12 champions, who required a COVID-19 outbreak at Washington to even reach the conference title game.
The season started with their offense looking explosive and highly-dangerous despite former starting quarterback Justin Herbert now being one of the favorites to the AFC Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Chargers. Meanwhile, a defense many thought would be among the nation’s best was growing through the pains of players opting out due to the pandemic and various other struggles, as best exemplified by the team’s loss to arch-rival Oregon State on Nov. 27.
After that game with the Beavers, a switch flipped on both sides of the ball with one being for the better and one for the worse.
The offense started to slow behind new starting quarterback Tyler Shough while the defense started to shape into its expected dominant form with the result being a disappointing 21-17 loss to Cal in what ultimately became the team’s final regular season game. While the Ducks defense held Cal to just 1.9 yards per carry, the offense struggled to create any sort of consistent attack and turned the ball over on a pair of fumbles.
The defensive dominance continued two weeks later when the Ducks held USC to just 38 total rushing yards and the offense did just enough to secure the win during a 31-24 win in the Pac-12 title game.
Still, the Ducks are aware they’ll be facing a challenge unlike any they have faced to this point, especially when it comes to Iowa State’s use of its three tight end sets.
“I know the tight ends are really big, really physical,” Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who, along with Cyclone JaQuan Bailey, was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press on Monday, said. “They use a lot of the tight ends as wide receivers. That’s something different that we haven’t really seen before. They like to spread out their offense, and even though they have bigger bodies, they like to use them as if they were speed and as if they were smaller bodies. So they seem pretty athletic and not scared of contact… They’re running physical. They’re coming at you. They’re looking for the kill shot. They look like they take advantage of people who underestimate them.”
Besides the trio of Charlie Kolar, Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner, the Ducks have taken notice of the Cyclones’ star quarterback Brock Purdy and star sophomore tailback Breece Hall.
Purdy, Iowa State’s leader in career wins by a starting quarterback, has continued his assault on the Cyclone record books during his junior campaign. He enters Saturday’s game either sharing or holding 25 school records and has thrown for 2,594 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season.
“If I’m being honest, (Purdy) seems like the most athletic guy on film I’ve seen. He’s super smart, fast,” Thibodeaux said. “He’s a quick thinker. He makes decisions really fast. So containing him is going to be a big part of the game as well other than stopping the run.”
Stopping the run has been a tall task for any opponent facing Iowa State this season with nobody in the Big 12, and few players in all of college football, carrying the ball as well as Hall, who finished sixth in the 2020 Heisman Trophy voting, and led the nation with 1,436 rushing yards.
Coupling Hall’s individual talents with those of the tight end unit and a much improved Iowa State offensive line make this Cyclone offense the most physical one Oregon has seen during the 2020 season and being able to match that physicality will be key for those on the Duck sideline.
“Really, it comes down to our mentality and our focus and how we apply that to our fundamentals and our techniques,” Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “The scheme is the scheme. You see over the course of the year they’ve played a lot of good defenses. Those who play fundamentally and technically sound have had the most success trying to stop this run game. And it is tackle football and they have one of the best tailbacks in the nation. So as we have been, especially in the last month here, we’ve been working very hard on our tackling and different phases, whether it be open field or profile and all the different scenarios.”
Oregon’s defense has been through the gambit this season, from being absolutely dominant at stretches to giving up more than 225 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to Oregon State star Jermar Jefferson.
Despite the ups and downs, this is a group that feels as though they have finally hit their stride and just in time for their biggest test of the season.
“When they strike, they get there with intention to make you feel that they’re a physical football team,” Cristobal said. “You have to play your best, and you have to play a complete football game. Because if you do, if you do allow for kinks and chinks in your processes, you’ll get exposed. That’s why preparation continues to get better as the year goes on, but the approach of our players being so thorough with what they’ve been doing. They’re well aware of the football team we’re playing out there.”