It’s kind of startling watching a team that doesn’t run the Air Raid these days.
Compared to TCU or Texas, Kansas State does everything at a downright leisurely pace. They’re not in a hurry to line up, or snap the ball, or even move downfield. There’s nothing particularly explosive about their offense. There’s nothing exotic about their defense. After an early season where OU saw wave after wave of offensive assaults, it’s easy to conclude that the Sooners should beat this team exactly as badly as they did last year—that is, 55-0.
And yet, it’s hard to see a Bill Snyder squad falling that flat against an opponent two years in a row. Kansas State has surprised Oklahoma more than once in recent years, and it’s still a well-coached, disciplined team this season. With a +6 turnover margin and the top-ranked defense in the Big 12, the Wildcats aren’t going to beat themselves and they almost certainly won’t lay down the way they did last year.
Here’s how the Wildcats look on film:
Kansas State’s biggest offensive asset is its versatility. The ‘Cats are just as likely to line up four-wide as they are to run a two-tight-end set, and they’ll even take snaps under center sometimes. This complexity is necessary because Kansas State really doesn’t have the offensive weapons to burn teams conventionally.
I mean, take their quarterback, junior Jesse Ertz. At 6’3” and 212 pounds, Ertz is built like a pocket passer, and he has a decent arm, but he’s not particularly accurate. Like any good Wildcats QB, he’s asked to play a role in the running game, but he’s not very fast and unlikely to gain big chunks of yardage. He certainly did not study at the Baker Mayfield School of Leadership, either.
Ertz is more of a game manager than a playmaker, but he struggled to do even that against West Virginia and Snyder had to burn three timeouts just to keep Ertz from taking delay of game penalties.
Ertz has some pretty good targets out wide, but the Wildcats have yet to energize their passing game this season. Snyder’s not afraid to try downfield shots on unsuspecting defenses, but Ertz tends to overthrow his guys. Still, it only takes two or three big completions to swing games. The OU secondary should be wary.
Their main concern should be receiver Byron Pringle, a guy whose talent shines brighter on special teams but could have a breakout game at any moment. Pringle was held to just two catches for 26 yards against Texas Tech (Tellingly, those numbers were good for second on the team. Isaiah Zuber had one more catch for 9 more yards.).
Kansas State’s main strategy is to beat teams on the ground. Charles Jones and Dalvin Warmack are a solid if unspectacular pair of running backs, and on their best days K-State will rack up over 200 rushing yards. Even without Charles Walker or Matt Dimon, though, OU’s rush defense will be much tougher than Tech’s. It’s the rock-solid Wildcat offensive line that makes the running game tick, but if Mike Stoops doesn’t fear their pass game they may see more pressure and more guys in the box than they have all season.
K-State did hang 44 points on Texas Tech, but the offense was only responsible for 30 of them. Frankly, that’s not that impressive. If OU can shut out any team this year, it’s probably one of the Kansas squads.
What’s keeping K-State in games this year is a very good defense, the Big 12’s top-ranked unit that comes in ranked 14th nationally in yards per game allowed.
Junior inside linebacker Elijah Lee is having another big year, tallying 41 tackles and an interception. Sophomore corner D.J. Reed has also emerged, grabbing two picks and four pass breakups this year.
Defensive end Jordan Willis, of “pretty easy to tackle” fame, is no joke either. He has six sacks already this year and will give Bobby Evans all he can handle, assuming Evans gets another start. Bill Bedenbaugh may opt for more experience to help with Willis.
The Wildcats run a standard 4-3 defense but will often run with just Lee in the middle if they need extra defensive backs. OU’s running game will have ample opportunity to establish itself against the Wildcats, who will have to respect Westbrook on the edge, Andrews in the slot (I guess) and the running backs up the middle.
Kansas State built up its defensive reputation against some mediocre competition, and they did give up 592 yards to Texas Tech last week. That was Tech’s lowest total of the season, however, and K-State is not the first squad to struggle with Patrick Mahomes. We’ll know a lot more about the K-State defense after this week—my guess is that Oklahoma, which looks to be hitting its stride offensively, will prove too much for them.
But the Wildcats tackle well and rarely make mental mistakes, and OU can’t overlook this defensive unit. It would be quite a step back for Lincoln Riley if he can’t figure them out.
On Special Teams
I usually just don’t mention special teams, but Pringle ran a kickoff back for a touchdown against Tech and he’ll take over the game if OU doesn’t watch out. Special teams has been a major factor in this game before, and it’s a big reason OU hasn’t beaten the ‘Cats in Norman since 2009(!).
Pringle has 340 yards on kick returns already this year.
Kansas State got completely blown off the field last season in Manhattan, but there’s something about this team in Norman that OU hasn’t responded well to lately. Personally, I think the Wildcats will finish near the bottom of this year’s Big 12 as they meet more competent offenses and remain unable to score, but this is exactly the kind of trap game that could re-ignite the flame under Bob Stoops’s hot seat after back-to-back wins.