This marks the second week of Big 12 play for many teams across the conference, including the No. 18 Texas Longhorns and the Kansas State Wildcats, who are set to face off this weekend in Manhattan, Kansas.
Last week, Texas got a monkey off its back by beating Gary Patterson and TCU for the first time since 2013. That win catapulted the Longhorns into the AP Poll and moved the Longhorns to 1-0 in conference play. After beating two Top 25 teams in two weeks, they’re hoping to continue this early season momentum to get to 4-1 in a stadium where they haven’t won since 2002.
That stadium is named for head coach Bill Snyder, who was also the guy in charge the last time Texas beat Kansas State at home. Snyder has a 7-5 record against Texas, so if there is an upset to be had by the Wildcats, it could very well happen this weekend.
Such a victory would be a welcome one for Kansas State, a team that’s had a rough start to 2018. After narrowly beating FCS South Dakota 27-24, the Wildcats suffered two particularly bad losses to Mississippi State and – most recently – West Virginia. The combined score for those losses was 66-16.
Headed into the fifth week of college football play, this game is a big one for both teams. A win would turn things around for Kansas State, at least in the short term. A victory for Texas would show that the Longhorns are on their way to being a Big 12 contender again.
TEXAS (3-1, 1-0)
After failing to score 30 points in their first two games of the 2018 season, Texas has achieved that feat against two Power Five opponents in consecutive weeks.
A lot of that production has been due to the play of true sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger, a linebacker-sized signal caller who can move the ball downfield and take off to pick up tough yards. Ehlinger is often fearless in taking chances in football games, a quality that has at times led him to commit drive-killing turnovers.
As of late, however, Ehlinger has been taking care of the football and reaping the rewards with a four-to-one ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions and almost 1,000 yards passing.
Ehlinger’s ability to make plays throwing to receivers like Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey provides a balance to the Texas running game. The Longhorns are an average team in terms of their ability to run the ball, but starting back Tre Watson is a reliable senior who can pick up three yards when there’s little daylight.
Defensively, the Longhorns have been defined by their ability to stop the run and get turnovers in key moments. Last week, Texas managed to get four turnovers in their win against TCU, including two interceptions by true freshman defensive back Caden Sterns.
KANSAS STATE (2-2, 0-1)
Offensive woes have been a major issue for a Kansas State thus far in 2018, as the Wildcats are averaging a paltry 21 points per game.
That’s probably related to why head coach Bill Snyder reportedly demanded that the Kansas State offensive staff start redshirt sophomore Alex Delton this week over last week’s starter, Skylar Thompson.
Thompson is slightly more versatile as a passer, whereas Delton is a bit more dangerous with his legs. Presumably, the hope for Snyder is that this move will make the offense – which is notorious for relying on the quarterback to run the ball – more closely resemble the kind of ground attack that helped the head coach get his name on the stadium.
Problems getting offensive production could be related to the loss of Dana Dimel, a former offensive coordinator who left Snyder’s staff for a head coaching job.
Kansas State has been somewhat uncharacteristic on the defensive side of the ball so far this season, giving up 178 yards per game on the ground. There is some youth in the front seven, though, which can open the door for a team to struggle in containing opposing ground attacks.
The pass defense has been better with players like Duke Shelley, Denzel Goolsby, and A.J. Parker in the secondary. Having those guys in the defensive backfield has paid off in turnovers, as the Wildcats are averaging one interception per game this season.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR TEXAS
Don’t Go Backward On Offense – In order to keep from facing long down-and-distance situations, the Longhorns need to avoid penalties and negative plays in Manhattan. The home crowd will be raucous on Saturday afternoon, and Texas isn’t good enough offensively to pull themselves out of adverse situations on the road. Texas’ ability to stay ahead of the chains will likely determine their offensive production.
Contain The Run Game – The majority of Texas’ defensive success will depend on how well they can keep the Wildcats from being able to run the ball consistently. Forcing the Wildcats to be one dimensional and throw the ball doesn’t play to the strengths of the Kansas State offense, and will create opportunities for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to dial up some blitzes.
Play For Field Position And Easy Points – Both of these teams prioritize field position, and this will likely be a game where it plays a big role. In a game like that, the coaches who make smart decisions usually win. For that reason, Tom Herman and his staff need to play it smart on the road in this game: take field goals when you’re in range, punt on fourth down, and don’t let a rogue kick returner bring one out of the end zone.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR KANSAS STATE
Make A Play On Special Teams – In order to put themselves in position to get some points up on the board, Kansas State needs to be special on special teams. Whether it be a blocked kick or big return, the Wildcats can give themselves an added advantage via the third phase of the game that might not be there otherwise.
Don’t Stop Running The Ball – The Wildcats’ best chance to get big gains on the Texas defense will come with their ability to use misdirection and the quarterback run game. They should look to hit big passes downfield on occasion, but those plays will be setup by different situations within the game itself. If Kansas State can pick up three and four yard gains, that should be enough for them to eventually get a big play downfield.
Take Some Chances On Defense – Getting turnovers will be key for the Wildcats to beat the Longhorns, meaning that Kansas State may have to force Texas to make mistakes on offense. Applying pressure on defense may be just what the Wildcats need to get the opposing quarterback to make some ill-advised decisions. It would also allow Kansas State to use their home field advantage.
You would assume that Kansas State has to have adopted a bunker mentality going into this week after getting embarrassed 35-6 against West Virginia. In spite of the fact that these two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions, expect a different Kansas State team to show up on Saturday than what Big 12 fans have see these past four weeks.
I anticipate this being a close, low-scoring game. Texas has played some of its worst football on the road, going back to their opening loss against Maryland earlier this year.
Conventional wisdom would probably say that the unit which really will make the difference in this game is the Texas defense, which continues to carry the team in 2018. The margin for error for Texas, however, is much smaller than what might be assumed. When the Longhorns struggle on offense and turn the ball over, they’ve looked all too beatable in the past.
For that reason, I think that Kansas State will win this game and both teams will move to .500 in conference play. I imagine this game will not see much offense, with neither team reaching the 30-point mark. Kansas State by three points.