Desperation will be a key theme in Manhattan, Kansas on Saturday, when the Kansas State Wildcats host the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The “must-win game” moniker isn’t always as dire as it’s made out to be, but it could be legitimately floated for this contest between teams looking to save a season.
For Oklahoma State, it’s about meeting typical Mike Gundy-era standards. This year’s Oklahoma State squad doesn’t have the talent of last year’s unit, but has enough to be a nine-win team. The schedule ends in brutal fashion for the Cowboys, and reaching that eight or nine-win plateau may require a win over K-State.
As for the Wildcats, bowl eligibility itself is in doubt. Needing four wins in its last six games, K-State has more questions than answers right now, and it has to get a win on Saturday to keep a plausible bowl chance alive.
Oklahoma State is looking to bounce back from a demoralizing loss last weekend to Iowa State. Despite a 4-2 overall record, at 1-2 and with that loss to the Cyclones in Week 6 the Cowboys are now eighth in the league standings, only ahead of K-State and Kansas.
Like most teams of recent vintage at OSU, the offense isn’t to blame. Oklahoma State is averaging 44 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in the Big 12, and has broken the 40-point mark in five of six games. The Cowboys also have the most formidable rushing attack in the conference, leading the league with 213.5 rushing yards per game.
Junior running back Justice Hill is the key factor behind that ground success. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native leads the Big 12 in rushing yards and is tied for the conference lead in rushing touchdowns with seven. He matches up well against Kansas State’ run defense, which is giving up the second-most yards per game on the ground in the league.
While Hill and senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius have kept the offense rolling, OSU’s defense will need to step up in Week 7. The Cowboys have allowed 28 points per game through six weeks, which is third worst in the Big 12. Last year in Stillwater the Oklahoma State offense dropped 40 points on K-State, but the Wildcats still won a 45-40 shootout. This year OSU will need a better defensive showing in Manhattan.
Kansas State has spent a lot of the first half of the season in states of disarray and discontent. While the roster as a whole has struggled this season, the quarterback situation has been the biggest issue. Coach Bill Snyder went over the head of his offensive coordinators to insert his preferred quarterback earlier this season, but that player, junior Alex Delton, hasn’t provided the same kind of spark he did last year.
Meanwhile, sophomore Skylar Thompson has spent more time on the field and has been a bigger part of the passing game (as opposed to being a runner who occasionally throws like Delton), but his year has been mired in inconsistency.
Snyder didn’t have a choice last week, with Delton unavailable due to injury. Thompson made some impact plays in last week’s 37-34 loss to Baylor, but also made some critical mistakes, including a late interception. Delton’s status is still up in the air for Saturday, but whoever takes over the role this week for the Wildcats will need to put together four full quarters for K-State to have a chance.
While the offense has grabbed headlines, the Kansas State defense has been spotty all year as well. The Wildcats have allowed the most third-down conversions in the Big 12 this year, allowing opponents to convert on over 51 percent of their third-down attempts, while surrendering the second-most first downs overall.
Oklahoma State Keys To The Game
Feed Hill – Kansas State’s biggest weakness on defense is the ground game, and Oklahoma State has the ability to gash any defense, let alone a porous one. The Cowboys need to get their (arguably) best playmaker the ball frequently on Saturday. Through the first six games, Justice Hill has 101 carries for 643 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
In their loss to Texas Tech, Hill received just 12 carries and two receptions. That’s simply not enough touches, especially for a guy that averaged 9.3 yards a carry. However, in their loss to Iowa State, Hill received plenty of carries, but he didn’t go anywhere behind a struggling offensive line. The problem was that Hill received just one reception. The Cowboys have to find more way to get Hill the ball in space, while simultaneously taking advantage of over-aggressive defensive lines.
Stop the Run – K-State’s Alex Barnes is coming off one of the best games of his career, rushing for 250 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns against Baylor. The quarterbacks also run a lot in Snyder’s offense, so Oklahoma State needs to close gaps and keep contain. With the fewest rushing yards allowed per game this season in the Big 12, the Cowboys are in a good position to slow down the Wildcats’ rushing attack.
Pass Rush – Oklahoma State leads the Big 12 in sacks this year, averaging over four and a half per game. What was supposed to be an elite offensive line for Kansas State has been somewhat disappointing this season, and OSU can take advantage of that. These second two keys work in tandem; if the Cowboys can stop the run and make the Wildcats one-dimensional, they can feast with the pass rush.
Kansas State Keys To The Game
Avoid Penalties – A hallmark of Snyder’s teams has been disciplined play. That discipline has been lacking this year, and in an important game K-State can’t afford to give away free yards. Making good decisions defensively and staying focused offensively is imperative.
Receivers Step Up – Kansas State won’t win this game without scoring a lot of points. That will likely mean the passing game needs to improve, and thus Thompson (or Delton) needs to have a better group of options to throw to. Junior Isaiah Zuber has been good all year, leading the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, but there needs to be a consistent second (and third) option.
Takeaways – K-State has the second-worst turnover margin in the conference at -3 through six games. Oklahoma State can put up a lot of points and can move the ball efficiently, but it’s been prone to giving the ball away too. The Wildcats will need as many possessions as possible this weekend, and that means they need to take the ball (and subsequently take advantage with scores)
Kansas State has been close the last two weeks, but dug itself in too deep of a hole against Texas and ran out of time against Baylor. The offense was the problem in both games, and you need to play at a high level offensively to keep up with Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have their fair share of flaws and faults right now, but their offense is explosive and will make you pay if you give them enough chances. Even on the road, Oklahoma State is good enough that it can beat a still-disorganized K-State team and cover the 7.5-point spread.