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 — When senior safety John Boyett announced he opted for season-ending knee surgery following the Ducks’ Week One victory against Arkansas State, few knew what would happen in the secondary — could someone fill the leadership void Boyett left behind?
Enter Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Ekpre-Olomu’s breakout year saw him intercept four passes — including one for a touchdown — and 19 pass defenses, double the amount of the team’s next best mark. His busy hands also forced six fumbles, again a team-high. His stellar play down the stretch didn’t go unnoticed — the sophomore was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best DB.
Much of the credit for Oregon’s defensive success this year can be spread evenly throughout the secondary. Boyett’s backup Avery Patterson suffered a season-ending knee injury down the stretch, and the Ducks’ defense was forced to lean on overachieving underclassmen like Troy Hill, Dior Mathis and Terrance Mitchell.
The result? A nation-leading 24 interceptions, even more impressive given Oregon didn’t play a 13th game, and the country’s third-best turnover margin.
Kansas State — The Wildcats are one of two teams with an even better turnover margin than the Ducks, coming in first in the country at +1.75. Eighteen of their 31 turnovers this year have been interceptions, and three separate defensive backs have five interceptions on the year for K-State (by comparison, linebacker Kiko Alonsoand Ekpre-Olomu share Oregon’s lead with four).
Junior safety Ty Zimmerman,who earned third-team All-America this year, had a four-game stretch with at least one interception this year. The native Kansan’s streak is the longest by a Wildcat since the ’80s. Zimmerman sat out during K-State’s lone loss to Baylor — perhaps another reason the Wildcats gave up more than 400 yards to the Bears.
Zimmerman’s senior teammates Allen Chapman and Nigel Malone each had five interceptions this year as well, creating a ball-hawking three-headed beast that intends to harass Marcus Mariota all afternoon.
Advantage: Kansas State. Both teams’ secondaries had the luxury of high-powered offenses this year, so it’s no surprise these two teams racked up so many picks. But if the heart of Oregon’s defense is its interior linebackers, Kansas State’s is its secondary.
The Wildcats lead the nation in turnover margin for a reason — well, three of them — and their secondary is simply too critical to the team’s overall success.
Yesterday: Defensive Line
Tomorrow: Wide receivers