Iowa State Cyclones

Kayvon Thibodeaux, improving Oregon defense ready for Iowa State

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, left, lays in confetti on the field with his MVP trophy after winning the NCAA c
Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, left, lays in confetti on the field with his MVP trophy after winning the NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship Friday, Dec 18, 2020, in Los Angeles. Oregon won 31-24. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Kayvon Thibodeaux jumps off the screen to Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning.

“I think we see the best parts of a lot of players that we’ve played against,” Manning said of the Oregon sophomore, an All-America defensive end and anchor of the Ducks’ defensive line. “Certainly his length is first and foremost. He has a presence there, just with his ability to extend and press defenders. Use his length to his advantage, and tremendous pass rusher.

“I wish we didn’t play against him, but he’s really fun to watch play as well.”

Thibodeaux, a native of South Central Los Angeles, and his teammates on the Oregon defensive side will look to continue showcasing themselves after a strong outing against USC in the Pac-12 title game, a 31-24 Ducks win, a performance for which Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal heaped praise on the unit.

The Ducks’ defense improved each game this season.

“We had done such great things defensively over the course of the ‘19 season,” Cristobal said. “And then some early things, too. And we allowed it to get away from us (this season).

“We just made the conscious decision (against USC) to control what we can control, and that’s playing to a certain level with pad level and technique and our feet on the ground and hands inside and the physicality.”

Thibodeaux was no exception to the improvement. He had one of the Ducks’ three sacks on USC quarterback Kedon Slovis in the Pac-12 title game. He finished with five tackles, two for loss.

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Thibodeaux is peaking at the right time, too. He recorded one sack in each of the Ducks’ last three games and was the Pac-12 championship game MVP.

He recorded 32 tackles — 19 solo, three shy of his total 35 tackles from the full 2019 season — and three sacks in Oregon’s six games so far this season. The sophomore was named a third-team AP All-American this week, as well as a first team Pac-12 selection by Pac-12 coaches.

At least part of what got away from the Ducks earlier in the season can be attributed to players opting out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At one point, all four of the 2019 starters in the secondary opted out of the season, though safety Deommodore Lenoir eventually rejoined the team.

Left tackle Penei Sewell, a projected early-first round pick and the brother of inside linebacker Noah Sewell, also opted out.

The opt-outs hurt what was projected to be among the best Pac-12 secondaries, but the Ducks have developed a talented group on the defensive line, including the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thibodeaux.

The defensive line was instrumental in Oregon’s Pac-12 title win, and the group’s depth will be key in corralling the Iowa State offense.

“Depth is everything up front,” Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “Every play is a hand-to-hand combat fight up front, so the more depth you can have and the more depth obviously that you can develop over the course of the year, you have more fresh guys available through the course of the game.”

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That depth will be put to the test by Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, who stands out to Thibodeaux on film, and the rest of the Cyclones’ talented offense.

“If I’m being honest, (Purdy) seems like the most athletic guy on film I’ve seen,” said Thibodeaux. “He’s super smart, fast. He’s a quick thinker.“

These are all compliments Purdy has heard before, of course, but the No. 10 Iowa State offense poses challenges outside the quarterback position, and outside All-American running back Breece Hall, whom No. 25 Oregon head coach Mario Cristoball called the best back in college football.

Iowa State’s tight ends, described by Cristobal as “monstrous-looking,” jump off the screen to Thibodeaux as well, particularly in how the Cyclones split the tight ends out as wide receivers.

“That’s something different that we haven’t really seen before,” Thibodeaux said. “They like to spread out their offense, and even though they have bigger bodies, they like to use them as if they were speed (receivers) and as if they were smaller bodies.

“So they seem pretty athletic and not scared of contact.”

Slowing Purdy, Hall, and tight ends Charlie Kolar, Chase Allen, and Dylan Soehner — who have combined for 71 receptions and eight touchdowns, 39 and six of which belong to Kolar — will prove challenging for an Oregon defense allowing 409.5 yards per game and 249.7 yards through the air.

The Cyclones, who enter the Fiesta Bowl with an 8-3 record, following a 27-21 loss to then No. 12-Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, but with nearly double the Ducks’ sample size, averaged 249 yards through the air and 441 yards per game total.

The Ducks, who enter at 4-2, allowed 27.3 points per game. Iowa State averaged 32.8 points.

“I’m extremely impressed with what they have done, what they are continuing to do,” Cristobal said. “And our players fully understand that this is the best football team we have played and their best football is ahead of them, too. So everyone is really looking forward to this opportunity.”

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Pressuring Purdy will be key for Thibodeaux and company, but as good as Iowa State’s Purdy, a Gilbert, Ariz., native, and the fleet of tight ends are, stopping Iowa State’s running game will be of equal import to the Ducks.

Particularly, that means stopping Hall, a first-team AP All-American and the nation’s second-leading rusher with 1,436 yards on the season, who averaged nearly 131 yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry.

Again, however, the Ducks are showing promise at the right time.

In their last two games, against Cal and then-No. 13 USC, the Ducks allowed just 1.7 yards per carry.

Avalos acknowledged his unit’s recent success, but noted stopping Hall, the Big 12’s offensive player of the year and a Doak Walker Award — the award for the best running back in the country — finalist, will be key to Oregon’s success.

“From his vision to his elite burst, his ability to break tackles and obviously he has a good O-line and tight ends that do a great job up front changing windows,” Avalos said. “We are going to have our hands full.”

As complimentary as the Ducks are of Hall, Kolar, Purdy and company, the respect is mutual from the Cyclones.

The respect for Thibodeaux extends beyond the Iowa State coaching staff to Hall, too.

The Cyclone star said the Oregon end is among the best defensive ends in college football, and noted Thibodeaux will command the Cyclones’ attention.

“You’re always going to know where he is at as far as the run game,” Hall said. “You can’t give him what he wants”

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Right now, at least, Thibodeaux will get what he wants, one more opportunity for a football game in the 2020 season.

That ... and one more win.

“If we win this one, it will all be worth it, honestly.” Thibodeaux said. “This will kind of be the holy grail of them all.”

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