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What to Watch For: Previewing the No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats

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The Longhorns will host a versatile Wildcats team on a three-game winning streak this weekend.

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Kansas State shocks Oklahoma, 48-41, beats top -5 team for first time in 13 years Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Coming off a much-needed bye week, the 5-3 Texas Longhorns are set to host the 6-2 Kansas State Wildcats in Austin this weekend. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 Central on ESPN.

The records are noted because the line opened at -6.5 favoring the Longhorns. As of Tuesday evening, it’s hovering around -7.0.

On the surface, that line could feel warranted. Two of three Texas losses have come against teams that have lived in the top 10 all season long. Oklahoma still sits just inside the recent College Football Playoff rankings top 10 at No. 9 despite dropping a game two weeks ago, and LSU finds itself vying for the top of the rankings at No. 2 as it gets ready for a heavy weight fight against No. 3 Alabama this weekend (at 2:30, of all times...)

Digging deeper, some doubt with that line begins to set in. After a barn-burner, last-second win against a one-win Kansas team, Texas dropped a disappointing loss to TCU in Fort Worth.

Context tells us the final score Saturday could be a lot closer than a touchdown, though ESPN’s FPI gives Texas a 67.4 percent chance to win the game.

Oh, was it mentioned that Oklahoma loss came against this Kansas State squad? It did, and the Wildcats are now ranked No. 16 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

But not so fast, my friends. Texas recently received positive news with its injury report this week that could help shore up that defense. And hey, Vegas is often more right than it is wrong... right?

Regardless, Texas has a big test on its hands this weekend as KSU will bring along a versatile offense and a fairly capable defense to Austin.

What can the Longhorns defense expect from the Wildcats offense?

In the first year of the Chris Klieman era in Manhattan, Kansas State has taken a bullish turn as of late. After starting 3-0, the Wildcats lost their first two Big 12 games, took a bye, then rattled off three wins against TCU, Oklahoma, and Kansas to get to 6-2 overall and a three-way tie for third place in the Big 12 heading into the weekend (currently with Texas and Iowa State).

At the very least, the Wildcats are screaming “Who do you think you are, i am!” going bowling this season.

So far, the Kansas State offense has fielded mixed reviews. The unit is led and schemed by first-year Wildcats offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and ranks eighth in yards/per game and sixth in scoring in the Big 12.

Ask some Wildcats fans and they’ll tell you they’ve questioned the offensive coordinator hire from the start. Meanwhile others have pointed to execution on the field as part of the issue so far. Either way, the recent three-game streak has come with a 48-point day against the Sooners and a 38-point day against the Jayhawks.

Sure, neither of those teams have lockdown defenses but it’s a sign that this offense may be starting to figure some things out.

Messginham followed Klieman to Manhattan from North Dakota State, but he’s no stranger to the Big 12, and that’s where some of the questions stem from. Messgingham’s only other Power 5 offensive coordinator job was at Iowa State from 2012-2013 where he spent two seasons under Paul Rhoades in that position.

During that two-year span, the Cyclones went 9-16 and averaged 25 points per game.

Since those Iowa State days, Messingham most recently held the offensive coordinator position at North Dakota State over two seasons where the Bison went 29-1 and averaged about 40 points per game. And that was good enough for Klieman to bring Messingham along to The Little Apple.

Though this Wildcats offense may not excel at one thing, they can keep a defense off balance by doing a lot of different things throughout a game. And that calls for a lot of different players and substitutions, so much so that coach Klieman commented earlier this season that “It’s like a hockey line change with Coach Mess.”

The Wildcats offense will line up in everything from spread sets, to pistol, to bunch formations and I formations. And they’ll sub in groups of players and use a variety of formations to dial up what they’re looking for each play.

We see the variation of plays below.

Against Oklahoma, Kansas State started the game in shotgun with this 21 personnel set. A tight end to the left, an H-back to the right, and pre-snap motion with freshman wide receiver Joshua Youngblood.

It went nowhere so Messingham spread things out the next play and called a designed run out of 11 personnel, again using motion pre-snap. Oklahoma is in what looks like a single-high man-defense, doesn’t over commit to the motion, and limits the damage again.

On third and eight, Kansas State went 10 personnel with trips to the field, used pre-snap motion again, but failed to pick up the first down after Oklahoma dropped eight and picked up a sack thanks to the blanket of coverage.

So what does Messingham dial up early in the second KSU series? You guessed it, the ole I formation. And it goes for a big chunk of yards.

The drive continued like this:

  • Play action out of I formation (incomplete pass)
  • Spread set out of 11 personnel (pass, 11 yards)
  • Double tight end set with two receivers to the field (false start)
  • I formation (run, 4 yards)
  • Spread set, 11 personnel (pass, 22 yards)
  • Diamond formation with three running backs (run, 8 yards)
  • Boundary side screen to the slot out of 12-personnel (pass, 6 yards)
  • I formation (run, 1 yard)
  • Play action out of I formation (incomplete)
  • 2x2 10 personnel (penalty, def pass interference)
  • Speed option out of Pistol with 12 personnel (run, touchdown)

It was a drive of multiple formations and multiple players, and it all ended with a touchdown en route to an upset win. As they say in hockey, let’s do that hockey!

The Wildcats offense is led by redshirt quarterback Skyler Thompson. Averaging just under 170 passing yards per game with a 60-percent completion percentage, Thompson isn’t a prolific thrower, but neither are Max Duggan or Carter Stanley and both were able to find holes against a banged=up Texas defense.

At 6’2, 212 pounds, his size and ability as a runner come into play around the red zone and on designed runs. To date, he and Jalen Hurts are the only two Big 12 quarterbacks with double-digit rushing touchdowns (10 and 13, respectively). And he’s also a threat to scramble if a play breaks down.

Surrounding Thompson in the backfield is a combination of different running backs with James Gilbert, Harry Trotter, and Jordan Brown leading the way. And in total, the Wildcats have six non-quarterback skill players with double-digit carries this season.

The trio of Gilbert, Trotter, and Brown has combined for 1,030 yards and 11 touchdowns on 197 carries. Gilbert leads the three with 100 carries and 558 yards.

So far, none of the running backs have made many plays in the passing game, but Kansas State does have a few wide receivers the Texas secondary will need to contain.

The 6’1, 209-pound senior Dalton Schoen leads the team in receptions (25), receiving yards (389), and receiving touchdowns (3). Behind him, the Wildcats have four wide receivers with nine or more receptions and 100 or more receiving yards.

The receiving threat typically lined up opposite Schoen is 6’2, 186-pound redshirt freshman Malik Knowles. A consensus three-star recruit out of Mansfield, Texas, Knowles has hauled in 16 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns and has flashed some big-play ability.

In the slot, it’s typically 5’10, 181-pound junior Wykeen Gill. Gill has nine receptions for 106 yards and a score.

Kansas State also flexes out a 6’4, 226-pound tight end in redshirt freshman Sam Wheeler at times. He has four receptions for 78 yards.

In Kansas State fashion, the offensive line is a group of redshirted veterans, but it is allowing just over two sacks a game and can be vulnerable in pass protection.

In all, if Texas can field more of its starters on defense, it should have a unit that can put up a fight. If it’s more reserves, this game could get frustrating real quick.

What will the Texas offense see from the Kansas State defense?

He may not have been the first choice, but so far Kansas State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton hasn’t been a poor choice.

Less than a month into the job, the initial hire, Ted Monachino, decided to enter the transfer portal take his talents to Chicago to join the Bears staff. Shortly after that, Hazelton was hired away from Wyoming where he had been the defensive coordinator for two seasons.

Hazelton deploys a base 4-2-5 defense, and so far it’s been fairly solid overall. Against Big 12 teams, the Wildcats defense ranks fifth in yards per game and third in points allowed.

The four-down front has been one that some other teams have moved away from in the Big 12, but it’s held its own at times for Hazelton and the Wildcats.

This third down stop against Jalen Hurts limited the Sooners to a field goal and kept the game within a touchdown. Kansas State went on to take the lead before the half and held it until the clock struck zero.

When it comes to third downs, Kansas State actually leads the conference in stops. Opposing teams are converting just 25 percent of the time, a number that rises slightly to 29 percent against Big 12 opponents.

Want to go for it on fourth down? You can try but so far teams are 0-for-8 against the Wildcats this season.

Through eight games, the Wildcats have also boasted the stingiest pass defense in the conference, but they will be without their best cover corner AJ Parker who sustained a right foot injury against Oklahoma. Parker was leading the team with three interceptions and four pass breakups.

Against the run, Hazelton’s Wildcats defense hasn’t held up as well. It ranks seventh overall in the conference and eighth against Big 12 opponents.

Notable defenders for the Kansas State defense include sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert, who leads the team in sacks with four, senior safety Denzel Goolsby, who leads the team in tackles, and veteran linebackers Da’Quan Patton and Elijah Sullivan.

After a sluggish second half performance against TCU last game, the Texas offense will need to get back on track to get the best of this Kansas State defense.

The struggles to this point for the Longhorns have raised doubt and question marks in the middle of a season that had been filled with expectations. And though it will be an uphill battle for this Texas team to get to the Big 12 Championship game, there is still light on the horizon. For that light to continue to shine, a win this weekend against a respectable Kansas State team is a must, and it could be another strenuous challenge.

Want to attend the game? As always, StubHub has you covered.