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October 4, 2012

Game Up Close: Advantage, K-State

As Kansas State players stood on the scorching turf at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in early August for their media day event, many salivated in hunger. But they didn't crave food. Coming off a 10-win campaign and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl, the Wildcats were eager to devour their prey a month prior to the start of the 2012 season.

It's been two months since that summer afternoon and the Wildcat players have had four games to satisfy their unsettling appetites. Needless to say, they have gorged themselves at the beginning of the 2012 season.

So far, K-State, 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the Big 12 Conference, has gobbled up appetizers in crushing Missouri State and Miami at home, paced its way through the salad by defeating North Texas, and took a massive bite out of its entree with the tremendous victory at Oklahoma. It's been a torrid start for the Wildcats.

Now their hunger level might be tested.

The Wildcats' 24-19 victory in Norman over then-sixth-ranked Oklahoma on Sept. 22 can be looked upon in several ways. To some, including K-State players, it wasn't an upset because they believed they were the better team entering the contest.

To many, including yours truly, it was a pleasant surprise, as K-State became the first ranked team to defeat the Sooners at home under Bob Stoops. And to all, it was a great start to a grueling conference slate. Regardless of how the victory is viewed, though, it put K-State on the map as one of college football's best teams and Big 12 frontrunner as it jumped eight spots to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, its biggest jump in the rankings since 2003.

With a bye last weekend, K-State has had two weeks to digest that monumental bite and it's now time to prove it didn't bite off more than it can chew when it welcomes in-state rival Kansas (1-3, 0-1) to Manhattan for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday.

This matchup will present a world of differences. The two teams have an overwhelming contrast in style, personnel, schemes and coaching across the board. The only real similarity between the two schools is that neither of them has performed at the level they were expected to at the beginning of the year. But even then, they are different. The Wildcats, even with a host of returning starters, were picked to finish sixth in the conference standings and have exceeded expectations thus far. They've quickly silenced their critics by winning two important games to start the season.

On the other hand, the Jayhawks have played worse than anticipated. They were picked to finish last in the conference and have played even worse, if that's possible. The floundering Jayhawks' only win was over South Dakota State in their season opener. To say the least, it's been a rough start for first-year coach Charlie Weis.

Wiping the slate clean entering the month of October, the Wildcats and Jayhawks will look to take the next step forward as they battle for bragging rights and the coveted Governor's Cup trophy in the annual Sunflower Showdown. It's a rivalry game so anything is possible, but considering the recent success of the rivalry and how this season has gone so far, K-State has the definite edge. So in order for the Wildcats to show its hungers hasn't vanished and prove they didn't take too big of a bite, they will need to dominate the Jayhawks in every aspect of the game.

To some degree, that has already started. Weis already pinpointed one advantage on Tuesday.

THE GAME UP CLOSE:
KANSAS AT K-STATE
WHEN KANSAS RUNS
So far this season, the Jayhawks have been able to run the ball fairly effectively. Both starter Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox average over five yards per carry and have a pair of touchdowns each. James Sims also returned last week at Northern Illinois after serving a suspension and rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. If there were an obvious strength in this offense, it would be running the ball. For some reason, though, KU coach Charlie Weis tends to stray away from it in the second half of ballgames. The addition of Sims will help the Jayhawks this season, but it will not be apparent in this one. K-State's defense is best at stopping the run and currently ranks 14th nationally. The Wildcats have proven they can stop explosive running backs and dominate the opponents' offensive line in their wins over Miami and Oklahoma. They should be able to handle Kansas.
Advantage: K-State
WHEN K-STATE RUNS
In the Wildcats' upset win at Oklahoma two weeks ago, John Hubert proved that his early season success was no fluke. The 5-foot-7 junior compiled 130 yards and a touchdown against the Sooners for his third 100-yard performance in just four games this season. Hubert has been the only featured back the last two games, but K-State coach Bill Snyder says there is some competition behind him. You could see a nice mix of Hubert, Angelo Pease and possibly Demarcus Robinson this week against the struggling Jayhawks. Then, of course, there is quarterback Collin Klein. The senior once again showed that he could pick up quality yards, even when the defense schemes against it. Hubert and Klein were dominant at Oklahoma and have been a force this season. With Kansas' rushing defense ranked 90th nationally, the Jayhawks are likely in for a long day on Saturday.
Big Advantage: K-State
WHEN KANSAS THROWS
It's been a head-scratching year for Weis and the KU offense, particularly in the passing game. Senior Dayne Crist, a Notre Dame transfer, has not lived up to his lofty expectations through the first four games. Crist is completing just 48 percent of his passes against weaker secondary units and has more interceptions than he has touchdowns this season. Plus, he has been sacked nine times. Crist's decision making, especially late in games, has been questionable and the inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter has hurt the Jayhawks as their 1-3 record reflects it. Still, Crist has a lot of talent and has the potential to break out any game now. The Wildcats' secondary keeps giving up yards in the middle of the field, but they have lived up to their bend don't break mentality thus far. They will likely keep the same approach and force Crist to make good decisions against a solid K-State pass rush.
Advantage: K-State
WHEN K-STATE THROWS
Although his completion percentage was down and he didn't have a passing touchdown against Oklahoma, Collin Klein showed a great deal of maturity by converting several key third downs in the fourth quarter in the Wildcats' 24-19 victory. Klein continues to show improvements and will look to have another productive game through the air against Kansas. He will need to make good decisions come Saturday, though. The Jayhawks have six interceptions already and lead the Big 12 in turnovers forced. Running the football is still the Wildcats' number one priority, but Klein has proven to be reliable in passing situations when it counts. If K-State is able to break open the game early, fans might see the explosive Daniel Sams sometime in the second half.
Advantage: K-State
SPECIAL TEAMS
The Wildcats have been dominant in special teams play this season and will look to continue that trend against the Jayhawks. They currently rank first in the nation in punt returns and sixth in kickoff returns. Sophomore Tyler Lockett will also be looking for a repeat performance of last year's rout when the speedster returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown. Placekicker Anthony Cantele leads the Big 12 in field goal percentage and punter Ryan Doerr was the conference's Special Teams Player of the Week after pinning all five of his punts inside the 20-yard line at Oklahoma. This unit is one of the nation's elite and the Jayhawks will have to be at their best to slow down the Wildcats.
Big Advantage: K-State
GAME INTANGIBLES
Both teams are coming off a bye week so they should be rested and ready to play. However, the momentum heavily favors K-State. The Wildcats are coming off their biggest true road win in school history at OU and the Jayhawks are trying to bounce back after a tough road loss to Northern Illinois. In addition, the game will be played in Manhattan for the first time since 2009 and the 50,000-plus at Bill Snyder Family Stadium will be loud and ready. This is a rivalry game so anything can happen, but K-State has a better team and a better coach. Charlie Weis has tried to fire up his team, but that can only do so much against a Top 10 opponent. The numbers don't lie, either. Since 1991, Bill Snyder is 13-5 in games following a bye week, including a 4-0 record against the Jayhawks.
Big Advantage: K-State
PROJECTED SPREAD:
K-STATE BY 30.5

"Starting with the head coach," he said. "That might be their biggest advantage."

True.

Also, during their weekly press conferences, most coaches are asked about a particular unit of the opposition, whether it is offense, defense or special teams. And generally, the coach replies by specifically naming one or two guys that standout. Not Weis. When asked about K-State, the former Notre Dame and NFL-offensive coordinator essentially spouted out the entire Wildcat depth chart. He simply could not find anything wrong with them.

"Well, there's no blaring weakness, that's for sure," he said. "I think that this is a team that really plays sound fundamentally on both sides of the football and lives off of your mistakes. And if you make mistakes, they pounce on you.

"They don't turn the ball over much or take too many penalties. They're just a sound, fundamental team."

Sounding off the entire depth chart is either a cry for help or a sign of what's to come. In this case, it could be both as K-State started the week as a 24-point favorite.

To dominate on offense, it all starts with senior quarterback Collin Klein. Klein has shown consistency, patience and maturity in the first four games this season by making good decisions, running the ball with a purpose and completing timely passes on third down. In the fourth quarter against Oklahoma, Klein converted on four third-downs to help seal the victory. It's with his balance and leadership that has carried the Wildcats to this point and that will need to continue this week.

In running situations, Klein and running back John Hubert will need to continue the vigorous trek they are on. Klein has five touchdowns on the ground, but it's been Hubert that has carried most of the load this season. The 5-foot-7, 191 pound junior is coming off a stellar 130-yard performance against the Sooners and will seek his fourth 100-yard game in five games this season. The Jayhawks have struggled immensely against the run, ranking 90th nationally, so all signs point to Hubert and Klein having another big game once again.

When he does throw the ball, Klein has been businesslike this season completing 70 percent of his passes to several different receivers. If the Jayhawks stack the box, which they likely will, Klein will be able to exploit their secondary with play-action passes. Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson have been targeted the most, but one receiver that could have a breakout game is Chris Harper. Harper has been relatively quiet to start his senior campaign because he is oftentimes in double coverage. Klein notices a little bit of that on film.

"I think some of that maybe present," Klein said. "I know teams know where he is at, there is no doubt about that. Sometimes things just happen in a way to where one guy will be open or will get the ball. It just happens that way. It is what it is.

"We're just all plugging away and doing whatever we got to do to win."

It won't be a cakewalk for Klein and the Wildcats, though. KU's defense has forced 13 turnovers this season, which leads the Big 12 and is tied for fifth nationally. They have recovered seven fumbles and picked off six passes. Klein understands that could be an issue.

"I think on any level they could create problems with us if we don't take care of our business," the signal caller said. "We are going to have to take care of the ball across the board. We need to finish drives.

"I know we can make it a close game really quick if you don't do that."

The forced turnovers have stuck out to K-State coach Bill Snyder, too.

"They play hard, aggressively and coaches put them into good positions," the 72-year-old Snyder said. "In the secondary, they're doing a nice job of breaking on the ball, and they play disciplined and play well with their eyes to make sure they don't get out of position."

The offense will go as far as Klein and the offensive line will take them. If they dominate, you'll likely see back-up quarterback Daniel Sams and the rest of the second unit during the second half.

On the other side of the ball, the domination starts with defensive line. Since the opening kick of K-State's 52-13 thrashing of Miami on Sept. 8, the front four have been on a tear. They have wreaked havoc by pressuring the quarterback and forcing costly turnovers. It's been a recipe for success for the defense and now they get to pick on their weaker in-state rival this week to boot.

KU quarterback Dayne Crist has not exactly been the stellar player many Jayhawk fans were expecting. The Notre Dame transfer has completed just 48 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (two) this season. He has also made a handful of poor decisions in the fourth quarters of games that have proven to be costly.

Crist's offensive line hasn't necessarily helped, either as Crist has already been sacked nine times. If the Wildcats' defensive line of Adam Davis, Meshak Williams, Vai Lutui and John Sua play like they have in the last three contests, Crist could find himself on his back quite often this weekend.

The Jayhawks have proven they can run the football, but the Wildcats have also shown they can stop it as they have shutdown the dominant rushing attacks of Miami and Oklahoma. KU has a nice combination of Tony Pierson, James Sims and Taylor Cox, but if the Wildcats' front four and linebackers are dominant, they will not play a factor in the game.

That doesn't mean the offense isn't a threat, though.

"Everybody is a concern," Snyder said. They have good running backs and that's a concern. Crist has a little lower percentage, but he's throwing the ball downfield more and I like the way the receivers run.

"They run good, hard, crisp routes and get separation from the secondary players and I've seen him stand on one hash mark and throw the football 15 yards deep to the far boundary. That's a NFL throw and those are hard to come by."

Up to this point, the one unit that has not been as dominant for K-State is the secondary. They stay true to the bend-don't-break mentality and it works. They just can't let Crist get into a rhythm or it could be costly on some possessions.

There hasn't been a K-State unit that has been more forceful than special teams. Whether it is kickoff returns or punt coverage, the Wildcats have done it all very well. With a full week off, this unit will be ready to go once again.

Even with all of that said, Weis believes the Jayhawks can still win.

"You still have to play the game, right? Not to be sarcastic at all, but I'm just stating the facts," he said. "These are the facts. This is who they are."

Klein wasn't sarcastic when asked about giving up the Governor's Cup trophy, either.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen," he stated.

The trophy won't likely leave the Vanier Football Complex this weekend, but the Wildcats can also make sure the game isn't close in the rivalry's first meeting in Manhattan since 2009.

They can show they are still as hungry as ever and they can take another big bite from their Big 12 schedule.





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