As football fans, one of the things that’s excites us more than anything else is upsets. It’s the question we look for every week – who will be taken down next. This year hasn’t disappointed. As K-State and Big 12 fans, some of the upsets are impossible not to love (Florida getting beat by Georgia Southern, a 7-4 FCS squad, anyone?). And when you root for a team struggling to remain one of the nation’s powers, sometimes you fall on the wrong side of that equation (see the season-opening loss to North Dakota State). There’s no question no one out there expects KU to defeat K-State on Saturday. The question is – do the Jayhawks even have a shot?
As a bit of a Wildcat homer, my natural instinct is to say no, there is no chance this happens. Hell, as an objective observer I know this won’t happen. That’s why Vegas is predicting K-State to win by 16 points. So I don’t care what the payout is – I’m not betting a dollar that the Jayhawks come emerge victorious. But the question isn’t will KU do it – the question is, do they have a chance?
Fans should remember that K-State did not look good in the first half of last year’s game. That vaunted defense – with players like Meshak Williams, Arthur Brown, Ty Zimmerman, and Nigel Malone – was unable to stop the KU offense. K-State received the opening kickoff, but it was KU that took a 7-0 lead to start the game. And Bill Snyder went into the locker room with just a 21-14 lead after a tying drive ended in an interception.
The third quarter saw the game blown open as the Wildcats outscored the Jayhawks 28-2 in the third on the way to a 56-16 victory. But the Jayhawks demonstrated an ability to spread the field, keep the defense off-balance with lots of screens and sweeps, and using speed to overcome a lack of size.
Similar concerns persist this year. K-State’s defense certainly didn’t get faster during the offseason. KU’s leading rusher from that game – James Sims – returns. He had 115 yards on 28 carries against the Wildcats, good for 4.1 ypc despite a long of just 14. He already has over 1,000 yards in 2013 and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And if KU has any shot of winning, he’ll be the player that makes it happen.
The KU quarterback situation is interesting. Jake Heaps (my user agreement prevents me from using certain adjectives and nouns to describe what I think of him) has been relegated to backup duty as freshman Montell Cozart is ready to start the game. Cozart isn’t going to beat the K-State secondary with his arm. He won’t be the hero of the game. Ball control and opportunistic defense is the only way that happens.
Sims gives KU an outside shot. But K-State’s offense has been impressing recently, and KU is gonna need some turnovers to make the upset happen. Despite demonstrating better ball security recently, K-State is still struggling to force turnovers while giving away possessions. While the Wildcats have a -4 turnover margin on the season, KU is an impressive +5 this year – good for fourth in the Big 12.
So ball control, solid rushing game, and winning the turnover battle. If KU can succeed on special teams, they’ll be replicating the formula Bill Snyder has used to succeed all these years. And while Tramaine Thompson is supposed to be the dynamic punt returner on the field, it’s KU’s Connor Embree who averages 12.1 yards per return and ranks third in the conference. Additionally, JaCorey Shepherd is just behind Tyler Lockett in average yards per kick return – Lockett is third in the league and Shepherd is fourth.
So there it is, the formula for beating K-State. Spread the field to keep the defense off-balance, using space to gain yards and points. Exploit the fact that K-State’s quarterbacks can’t go a game without turning the ball over. And use special teams to win the field position battle. Does this mean KU has a shot? The answer is still no. The Jayhawks average 15.8 points per game. That’s 120th nationally. They allow 31.9 points. 96th nationally. K-State is averaging around 33 points per game. I won’t be surprised if KU wins the turnover battle. I almost expect it. But K-State will also outgain KU by about 200 yards, Tyler Lockett cannot be contained, and KU is simply outclassed in this match up. There’s a reason K-State locked up a bowl game two weeks ago while KU just ended a a 27-game losing streak in league play. KU has some positives on the surface. They still can’t escape the fact that to win games, you have to score points. The Jayhawks can’t score points. There is no threat of KU upsetting K-State in this game.