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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Matching up with the Kansas State ground attack

KSU’s punishing run game will pose a serious test for the Sooners.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats played a classic game last year in which the two teams combined for 77 points. It managed to defy the typical notions of a shootout.

KSU went up and down the field on OU despite only throwing the ball 14 times in the entire game. Instead, Bill Snyder’s team chewed up yardage on the ground, running 42 times for 268 yards. Quarterback Alex Delton did most of the damage against the Sooners as he carried the ball 27 times for 142 yards. Running back Alex Barnes chipped in 108 yards on just six carries.

The Wildcats pumped out big gains consistently on the ground in a performance that proved to be a sign of trouble to come for the Sooners. Given how poorly the Sooners have handled physical running attacks this year, expect a similar game plan out of the Wildcats on Saturday. It will look different in execution, though.

A familiar new identity

K-State offensive coordinators Andre Coleman and Collin Klein at the start of the year appeared set on trying to deploy an Air Raid-ish scheme that incorporated zone read and some power run concepts — a clear overestimation of their receiving corps. The results spoke for themselves. KSU put up 10 points in a blowout loss to Mississippi State in the second game of the season and just six while getting stomped by West Virginia a couple weeks later.

It seems as though the coaching staff eventually recognized that Barnes, now in his third year, is the Wildcats’ meal ticket. He’s running for more than 110 yards per game in 2018, which is tops in the Big 12, and averaging nearly six yards per carry. In the last two games against Baylor and Oklahoma State, the Wildcats have given Barnes 22 and 34 carries. He has responded to the increased workload by rushing for nearly eight yards per attempt during the stretch.

The playbook contains the standard assortment of Snyderian run calls, including isolations and sweeps. The power play that battered OU’s defense last year is there, too. Per usual, KSU will operate out of a myriad of offensive personnel groupings, such as a diamond backfield with an inverted wishbone behind quarterback Skylar Thompson.

On the whole, however, the K-State offense seems to flow through zone runs and read plays that establish Thompson as a secondary running threat. Thompson primarily gives to Barnes on these calls unless defenses sell out hard to stop the RB, in which case the QB pulls the ball on the mesh and takes off.

Thompson has proven to be an effective complement to the Wildcats’ workhorse. Against the Cowboys last week, he carried the ball 12 times for 80 yards, his fourth game of the year with at least 50 yards on the ground.

Not much happening through the air

KSU’s aerial capabilities don’t match what the Wildcats can do on the ground. They have a team passer rating of 116.27, which is the worst mark in the Big 12 and puts them in the bottom 20 overall in the country. They rank 95th in the nation in Passing S&P+.

Not surprisingly, KSU builds off the running game through play action. The Wildcats also try to put Thompson in position to roll out and potentially tuck and run if he sees green grass in front of him.

In terms of targets, Isaiah Zuber is just about it. He has caught 39 passes this year, or nearly half of KSU’s 91 receptions on the year. The junior wideout from Georgia can hoof it, but it would be unconscionable for the Sooners to allow him to shake loose in obvious passing situations.

The team’s second-leading receiver, Dalton Schoen, has all the hallmarks of a player who came up through Snyder’s famed walk-on program. So far this season, he has done most of his damage on one big play per game; hence his average gain of more than 18 yards per reception.

OU also has to account for Barnes leaking out of the backfield. He hooked up with Thompson against OSU for a big gain (above) that illustrated what kind of problems he might pose as a receiver.

Disadvantage in the trenches

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: It seems clear that the Wildcats will try to milk the clock when they have the ball, using their own offense to limit OU’s possessions. Bill Snyder even made note in public comments this week about the success that Army had against the Sooners. KSU also had an extra week off to prepare for this game, so who knows what kinds of tricks the Purple Wizard might have conjured up?

If interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill plans on playing more of the one-gap scheme that OU’s defensive line used last week, the Sooners will have to watch out for getting creased by K-State’s beefy offensive line. And don’t think KSU’s coaches missed the problems that the Sooners have had playing the edge against the run this year.

Of course, if the front six can shoot gaps to cause negative plays on early downs, it will mean more obvious passing situations for the Wildcats. That should be considered a win.

KSU’s biggest advantage in this matchup seems to be its OL against OU’s defensive front. Abusing the DL all game will put the Wildcats in position to make this a game in the second half. Hopefully, McNeill is coming up with ways to ensure the Sooners have reinforcements up front.