SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Asked how they handled a shocking, season-derailing loss, college football coaches will usually offer a company-line cliché.
It’s the players who are often more candid, as was the case with Oregon and Kansas State players in discussing their sole losses this season at Fiesta Bowl media events this weekend.
Neither team, however, is dwelling on what might have been when the two were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation before losing within hours of each other and missing out on a chance to play for the national championship.
“It was very difficult knowing we had the chance to do something big that Kansas State had never done before — going to a national championship,” Wildcats defensive back Meshak Williams said. “It hurt the next day, but we couldn’t dwell on it. We had to face the fact that we let something slip out of our hands. We just had to move on to the next game.”
Kansas State’s only loss came at the hands of Baylor on the same day Oregon lost to Stanford. The Ducks said they took a little time to reflect on the loss but quickly moved on, looking to improve from it.
“We always have a 24-hour policy,” freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “It was a long 24 hours for some of us. To have that loss I think not only helped us grow as a team, but it really kind of built this team up. We always understand that it’s not one loss, it’s the whole body of what you’ve done.”
It wasn’t that easy for everyone. Oregon senior offensive lineman Ryan Clanton admitted that the loss lingered beyond the day after, for one reason or another.
“For me, it sat on my mind for a while,” Clanton said. “For the other guys, they were able to kind of brush it off. Maybe it’s easier for younger guys — I don’t know. But being it’s my last year, it kind of sat in my mind. I didn’t want to lose any games.”
Both Kansas State and Oregon won out following their losses and still got paired up in a BCS game, just not the one they’d hoped for. Some might argue, however, that the Fiesta Bowl matchup is actually better than the Alabama-Notre Dame pairing in the BCS title game.
Perhaps both teams actually do think about what might have been more than they will admit, but if so, they aren’t showing it. Both appear focused on the task at hand.
“Coach tells us all the time, ‘You’ve just got to put the past behind you and don’t let it interfere with what you’ve got going on,’ because we’ve still got a great team,” Williams said. “So we just moved on, and now we’re in the Fiesta Bowl and we feel good about it.”
Talk of Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s potential departure for the NFL after the season has been a talking point since the very moment the Ducks arrived in the Valley. Reporters peppered Kelly with questions about his possible NFL future in his first meeting with the media last week, but he wasn’t biting.
“I’m coaching the Fiesta Bowl, and that’s where my sole attention is,” Kelly said. “That’s all I’ve always had my plan to do. I’m going to coach this team, and that’s it.”
That hardly quieted the talk. The coach’s possible exit was a popular topic Saturday when offensive players met the media, but the players insisted they have not been distracted by any rumors of their coach’s possible jump to the pros.
“He’s our head coach right now, and that’s the only way I can look at it,” offensive lineman Hroniss Grasu said.
And if Kelly does go, what legacy does he leave behind in Eugene?
“Great coach,” senior running back Kenjon Barner said. “I think we have seven losses the last four years. He’s probably, in my opinion, one of the greatest — if not the greatest — coaches to ever coach at Oregon.” ZIMMERMAN’S RETURN
Kansas State defensive back Ty Zimmerman missed the Wildcats’ final two games of the season with a right foot injury that doctors said would require at least a month to heal. On Saturday, he was a surprise addition to the team’s defensive media interview session. That he was added to the event was a pretty strong indicator Zimmerman would be back for the Jan. 3 game, and he confirmed as much Saturday.
“I feel great,” Zimmerman said. “The biggest thing I think is just mentally. Being on the sidelines, having to sit and watch and now being out there, I got just a greater appreciation for the game, I guess.”
Zimmerman, who had five interceptions before getting hurt, said it was frustrating to watch from the sidelines, especially as Kansas State lost to Baylor. But it was also motivation for him to work harder in hopes of getting back in time for the team’s bowl game.
“(The doctor) mentioned I would have a chance, depending how everything healed and how hard I went about the treatment,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said that while it took a while before he could run at full speed, he is now not limited in any way.