The race for a berth in the Big 12 Championship game is tight and this weekend’s matchup between the Texas Longhorns and the No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats could go a long way in how that race shakes out.
Kansas State is on a hot streak, after knocking off previously unbeaten Oklahoma and convincingly beating rival Kansas. So what should Texas fans expect as the Wildcats come to town Saturday?
For some insider information, we reached out to JT VanGilder (@jtarkman) of Bring on the Cats (@bringonthecats).
Burnt Orange Nation: The biggest story this week is the injury to defensive back AJ Parker, who is out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Who will the Kansas State defense look to in order to slow down the Texas air attack?
Bring on the Cats: It may sound cliche, but “next man up” has been a big mantra for this team all year. That’s definitely been true in the defensive backfield that has seen it’s fair share of shuffling around already this season. So while losing Parker’s talent on the edge is a blow, there are a bunch of guys back there with big-game experience. Expect Walter Neil Jr. to be the main cover guy, with either Darreyl Patterson or Kevion McGee on the other side. There’s also a possibility of current nickel back Jahron McPherson sliding out and Johnathan Durham coming in for that spot. We’ll probably also see the return of the Tampa 2 look that the coaches used during the OU game, instead of their preferred one-high safety look.
BON: Skylar Thompson has had an up-and-down season for the Wildcats and is coming off of two good performances against the Oklahoma Sooners and the Kansas Jayhawks. What has been different in the last two weeks and do you expect it to continue against Texas?
BOTC: Confidence is probably the biggest thing for Skylar. Confidence in himself and his understanding of what the coaches (and his team) need from him. In many ways I see him like a younger version of Alex Smith. He’s also been aided by the return of stud freshman receiver Malik Knowles from injury even in limited action (he missed both the OSU and Baylor games), as well as the emergence of other targets, particularly tight ends. The other thing that has helped him is being more comfortable running, and running forward, when a play breaks down instead of trying to force something or keeping the play extended by running laterally. But really, the Wildcats need to keep being successful running the ball, with running backs and receivers, to help keep Skylar successful through the air and on scrambles/draws.
BON: For the most part, Kansas State has done an incredible job of keeping opponents off of the scoreboard, sitting No. 26 in the nation in scoring defense. What has been the secret to this unit’s success in 2019?
BOTC: The key to success on defense has been the front four. And it’s not just the four starters either — the defensive line is legitimately at least two-deep across the board, so they can rotate through players and not experience a drop off. Those front four have been good at creating pressure, even without generating a bunch of sacks, as well as limiting run plays. And while the general goal is still bend-don’t-break, there is a lot more aggressive defense happening than in previous seasons. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton isn’t afraid to call blitzes with linebackers and safeties, as well as keep corners tight on the perimeter when needed and not give 10-yard cushions on every play. These guys will give up yards, but they will make you earn it.
BON: With back-to-back big wins, how does this coaching staff keep the team focused for yet another big matchup?
BOTC: This coaching staff is no stranger to success. A good portion of this staff has coached at North Dakota State, where winning every game every year was basically the expectation. And that starts at the top. They’ve been very consistent with the “1-0 every day” plan, and treating each game as equal in the grand scheme. They turned around after the extreme high of beating OU and then smashed KU to the ground in what could have easily been a let-down game. Whatever these guys are selling, the players are buying in, and it’s showing.
BON: What is one matchup you’re watching?
BOTC: The K-State O-line vs the Texas D-line. Success in the running game is huge for the Wildcats, and that starts up front. The front five were able to push OU around and create big running lanes for the running backs (and Thompson), and they’ll need to keep that up against the talent along the UT front.
BON: What is one thing KSU has to do to win Saturday?
BOTC: For the Wildcats to be successful, they need to keep the chains moving on offense. That doesn’t mean that every drive needs to end in a touchdown, or even points, but it does mean they need to avoid three-and-outs. Kansas State’s best games this year have come when they dominate time of possession, and that will be no different when facing Texas. The best way to prevent an opponent from scoring is keeping them off the field.
BON: What’s your prediction?
BOTC: This will be a tough game, but in the end I predict order will be restored to the universe and K-State returns to its rightful place beating the Longhorns — 48-35 Wildcats