Countdown to the Fiesta Bowl: Grading Oregon’s, Kansas State’s linebackers

Oregon linebacker Michael Clay paced the Ducks with his play all year. (Aaron Marineau/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Oregon linebacker Michael Clay paced the Ducks with his play all year. (Aaron Marineau/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Posted by Matt Walks on Friday, Dec. 21 at 12:28 pm.

In the days leading up to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, the Emerald will take a position-by-position look at Oregon and Kansas State, determining which team has the edge going into the BCS showdown on Jan. 3.

Oregon — The heart of Oregon’s defense is two-sided.

All year long, linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso have battled for the team’s lead in tackles. When Clay went down with an undisclosed leg injury, Alonso surged ahead in the race. Clay took the lead when Alonso missed time due to a broken wrist. When the smoke settled, the two finished one-two by a wide margin. Their stat lines:

Clay: 92 tackles (55 solo), 8 TFLs, 2 sacks, 0 INTs, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery
Alonso: 75 tackles (54 solo), 12 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 INTs, 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries

The duo’s play this year was supplemented by hybrid ‘backer Dion Jordan, who added 10.5 TFLs and five sacks and is currently slated as the first Oregon name called in this year’s NFL Draft.

Position coach Don Pellum has heaped praise on all three of them all year.

“(Clay’s) always treated football as a job, a serious job, like a real professional,” Pellum said. “He has great instincts. God gave him some special gifts. On top of that, he works at it.”

Clay’s play earned him Oregon’s Most Valuable Defensive Player honors at the team’s end of the year banquet. While he lacks some of the physical gifts Jordan and Alonso enjoy, Clay’s smarts within Oregon’s system are invaluable and maybe the biggest reason Oregon’s defense is only allowing 22 points per game — good for 26th best in the nation.

Kansas State — The Wildcats’ defense has been a shade better this year, giving up 21.1 points per game.

Arthur Brown is a huge reason for that. The prodigal son, born in Wichita, Kan., left the University of Miami to return home and play for the Wildcats after the 2009 season. He’s the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year this year after notching 91 tackles, two picks, six TFLs and a sack. He was also considered for the Butkus, Bednarik and Lombardi Awards this year.

Wearing No. 4 — unorthodox for a linebacker — only contributes to the attention he draws from fans and opposing offenses. His talent runs in the family, too: Brother Bryce became one of fantasy football’s hottest commodities after breaking rookie records at running back for the Philadelphia Eagles this year.

Brown’s also had time to reflect on what went wrong during Kansas State’s lone loss this year against Baylor. The Bears shredded the Wildcats for 342 yards and four touchdowns on the ground — something you can guarantee caught the eyes of Oregon’s prolific runners.

“Time heals those wounds, you get over the frustration and the disappointment and the anger,” Brown told the Kansas City Star. “But I didn’t forget about it.”

He’s helped inside by Jarell Childs who added 2.5 sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries.

Advantage: Oregon. Without the play of Clay and Alonso, Oregon’s wins (and its one loss) wouldn’t have been nearly as dominant. Clay, for instance, tallied 20 tackles in the overtime defeat against Stanford.

In comparison, Kansas State does its damage on the edges, with a trio of defensive backs with five interceptions a piece this year. Part of this is a product of Big 12 versus Pac-12 schemes — the West Coast boasts more running backs integral to their respective offenses (See: Carey, Ka’Deem or Franklin, Johnathan).

As teams pound inside the hashes, linebackers become increasingly important. Thus, Oregon’s corps has been more battle tested and valuable this year.

Yesterday: Tight Ends

Tomorrow: Defensive line