SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Throughout his second stint as Kansas State's coach, Bill Snyder has used the football field as his own personal chessboard. The 73-year-old coach and his staff have consistently made each move with caution and precision to not get overtaken, while instantly dissecting the opposition and looking for the right moment to strike. The in-game adjustments are what makes Snyder one of the best coaches in the game and it's why the Wildcats are in the position they're in this season. This is no fluke. This is strategy.
On Thursday, the chess master's strategy will be fully tested when the man standing on the opposing sideline is the best checkers player in the game in Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The contrast in styles and pizazz is what makes the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 5 K-State (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) and No. 4 Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. so compelling, but it's not the biggest aspect of the game. In fact, it's not close.
For K-State, this game is about starting strong and asserting themselves offensively against of one of the country's best teams. It's simply about being the best team for the first 15 minutes of the game. And although the Wildcats have shown that they can get off to good starts, it hasn't exactly been their strong suit this season.
"We haven't been a very explosive first-quarter team," K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel admitted this week. "It usually takes us a quarter or a quarter and a half, but sometimes against teams like Oregon you aren't going to have that luxury so we have to come out and try to have some success early."
In 2012, Snyder and the Wildcats have taken a wait-and-see approach in the first quarter offensively. They keep the play calling fairly vanilla until the defense shows their weakness. It's a brilliant strategy the majority of the time, but not against Oregon.
To put it mildly, the Ducks are dangerous in the opening quarter. Their offense averages 16.3 points per game and the defense holds opponents to just 3.58 points in the first quarter. Oregon holds a 10-0 record when leading after the first quarter and has only trailed once in its regular season finale win over in-state rival Oregon State. In their lone loss of the year against Stanford, the Ducks were tied at 0-0 at the end of the first 15 minutes.
With that said, it will be imperative for K-State to keep Oregon's offense on the sideline by generating long, successful drives in the first few minutes of the contest.
"Us having a good start is going to benefit us in a lot of ways because we know Oregon can score almost every time they get the ball," K-State sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. "If we get the ball first and stop them and score and then stop them and score again, that'll help us out because we won't be playing catch-up like we did against Baylor.
"We'll be able to stay in our offense and run, run, run and pass. That'll help us a lot in not having to play catch-up and throw, throw, throw when they know it's coming."
As aforementioned, K-State isn't accustomed to those blazing starts. In comparing them to Oregon, the win percentage is quite similar. K-State is 5-0 when leading after the first quarter in 2012, while posting a 4-0 record when being tied and a 2-1 when trailing. However, K-State's offense hasn't set the tone quite as well as Oregon. They average just 6.5 points per first quarter and have only scored in double-figures three times (Miami (FL), West Virginia and TCU). Oregon has never allowed a team to score in double-digits after the first frame and has scored over 10 points in nine games this season.
Snyder admits that they've had somewhat of a wait-and-see approach, but it hasn't been intentional.
"It's not that we haven't attempted to do that," Snyder quipped on Wednesday. "It's not our intent to go to the field and say, 'Okay, we're going to take 15 minutes and see what's out there.' That's not really our approach.
"The approach is that we're going to do the best we can. We want to move the ball. If we can move it and score in the initial phases of the ballgame, we want to do that. Does it happen that way? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."
The trend of a slower-paced first quarter didn't just emerge this season or even in Snyder's return after a brief retirement. It's happened in every bowl game he's coached. In the 13 bowl games under Snyder, K-State is 3-0 when leading after the first quarter, 2-3 when tied and 1-5 after trailing. And much like this season, K-State has failed to register a double-digit score at the end of the opening period of any bowl game under Snyder. Those are astonishing statistics and they should not be taken lightly against Oregon.
"This game we're going to have to be on top of things because Oregon has a very good offense and is going to put up points," junior left tackle Cornelius Lucas said. "We can't go two or three quarters where we don't do anything. We have to be very good in every quarter of this ballgame."
The success of K-State's offense lies on the right arm and legs of their senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, Collin Klein. He is the engine to this offense and will need to be at his best in order for the team to be successful. The attention has constantly swirled about Oregon's offense, but it's their defense that will be the biggest difference maker. The Ducks will have to slow down the No. 10 scoring offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Klein, one of the most dangerous players in the country.
"He's the catalyst, that's for sure," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "I'd say it's a lot like two years ago, Cam Newton, that offense at Auburn ran through Cam Newton. They're similar offenses, then there's a lot of differences, too.
"But the bottom line is you know that the offense is going to run through Collin Klein, which is good for Kansas State, because they're getting the ball in their best player's hand every down. He's the guy that's the general. He's the guy that gets to call the shot. But it's also we know that's the case, too. We're going to have to see how the game unfolds."
K-State's offense most certainly runs through Klein, but it seems that Oregon is putting all of their chips into stopping him and no one else. That leaves ample opportunities for first-team All Big 12 selection running back John Hubert and Angelo Pease to make a major impact. Good running backs have been able to exploit this defense and Hubert is one of those deceiving backs that could have a big game.
Yes, a quick start of moving the chains, dominating the time of possession and keeping the Oregon offense bored on the sidelines in the first 15 minutes will be vital. However, according to Klein, it's important, but not the end of the world.
"When you start fast it makes it easier to finish," the 6-foot-5, 226-pound signal caller said. "It doesn't make it a done deal, but it definitely makes it easier. There's no doubt we'd rather play ahead than behind.
"You can't mentally lock yourself in that box because all the sudden, when we're down, to me that doesn't mean a darned thing, because we have to find a way to win the game. It's a stat that carries some weight because it's much easier to finish when you started well, but we're going to finish one way or another. As a player, we can't think about that stuff too much, but it carries some weight."
The stats carry weight and so does this game for K-State and Klein. The Wildcats are trying to become the first team in the program's history to record a 12-win season and for Klein, a win would pass Michael Bishop and Ell Roberson in the rankings and become the winningest quarterback in school history.
There's a lot at stake. Both teams are very good at what they do and have had over a month to prepare. They probably know more about each other than they want to. It's all about strategy and execution at this point. And in the end, if K-State's offense can get off to a good start by playing their game and milking the clock in the first quarter, Snyder will have the advantage in proving he is a better at chess than Kelly is at checkers.