Unlike Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian’s trip to Stillwater, which was his first, he has made a previous trip to Manhattan — after Sarkisian picked up football again at El Camino College in California after playing baseball for the USC Trojans for a year, Kansas State Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder hosted Sarkisian on a recruiting visit to the Little Apple.
Sarkisian landed at BYU in 1995 instead, but his path crossed against with Snyder in the Cotton Bowl when the Cougars beat the Wildcats 19-15 as Sarkisian accounted for both touchdowns in throwing for 291 yards and gaining 15 of the team’s 22 first downs through the air.
After the game, Snyder reacted in typical Snyder fashion — sending his former recruiting target a handwritten note.
“Got a great note card from from Coach Snyder after the game, Just about the ballgame,” Sarkisian said. “So I think that just kind of exemplifies what that program is built on. There’s a lot of integrity in the way they go about their business. I think they do it the right way And I think that started with Coach Snyder and obviously Coach Klieman has done a great job of continuing that process.”
The next trip to Manhattan didn’t go as well for Sarkisian. In his second season as the quarterbacks coach at USC, the Trojans faced the Wildcats in a non-conference matchup won by Kansas State 27-20 as El Roberson came off the bench to throw for a touchdown and run for a touchdown. Sarkisian recalled running back Darren Sproles hurting USC, although 20 carries for 78 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and a touchdown doesn’t quite support that memory given the type of damage Sproles typically inflicted on opponents in college — his 20 carries against Texas that season went for 136 yards in a narrow win for the Longhorns.
On Saturday, Sarkisian makes his first trip to Manhattan as a head coach with a five-game winning streak for the Longhorns on the line — Snyder’s legacy still exists with his name on the stadium, his former quarterback serving as the offensive coordinator, and Klieman continuing his tradition of integrity. But Kansas State is no longer the purple overlord of Texas with the Horns winning six of the eight games since Mack Brown ended his miserable 3-7 run against Snyder.
Given Sarkisian’s road results, however, and propensity for blowing leads of the double-digit and/or second-half variety, Klieman has his well-coached team in a strong position to take advantage of a sellout stadium in a prime-time slot to end the reign of the burnt orange overlords.
“I think Coach Klieman has done a fantastic job at Kansas State,” Sarkisian said. “They’re talented in all three phases. The guys take care of the ball on offense, they create a bunch of turnovers on defense, they limit their penalties. I think they play really good team defense — I think they’ve taken advantage of the transfer portal on their roster. It shows up at safety or at quarterback or a tight end. They’ve got some talented players offensively, whether it’s either quarterback that’s in there has obviously shown the ability to move the ball, the runner as we know is a fantastic player. Both receivers are not only good at receiver, they’re great returners for him. So this is a great task going on the road into a really cool environment, so looking forward to it.”
Over 15 years ago, Klein signed with Kansas State over three other offers out of Colorado as a modestly-ranked pro-style quarterback. After redshirting, he mostly played wide receiver and special teams and had only attempted five passes before facing off against Texas in another early November matchup in 2010.
The Wildcats surged past the struggling Longhorns in that game despite Klein attempting only four passes, completing two for nine yards while for 127 yards and two touchdowns, running back Daniel Thomas added 106 yards and two touchdowns, and Kansas State smashed Texas 39-14 with both Texas scores coming in extensive garbage time.
It was the first of three losses Snyder inflicted on Brown in a stretch that ultimately included five straight wins by the Wildcats.
Klein is now in his first season as the offensive coordinator for the Wildcats after Klieman made the difficult decision to fire Courtney Messingham, his friend since growing up in the same town and then playing together in the late 1980s at Northern Iowa and his offensive coordinator since Messingham helped Klieman and North Dakota State win the 2017 and 2018 then followed him to Manhattan.
So far, Kansas State’s offense ranks No. 23 in FEI, but doesn’t have any outstanding traits in that metric other than ranking No. 7 in turnover and a solid busted drive rate of No. 38. Oddly enough, the offense’s biggest struggle is ranking No. 87 in first down rate even though the busted drive rate is solid because the Wildcats are a poor third-down team, converting only 32.1 percent, 113th nationally.
Running back Deuce Vaughn needs no introduction as the offense’s best player — the Sproles clone is at 902 rushing yards this season on 5.9 yards per carry, but only has five touchdowns this season as the Wildcats have struggled scoring touchdowns in the red zone at 53.3 percent, No. 99 in the country. In fact, Vaughn is averaging only 2.5 yards per carry on 14 red-zone attempts with only a single touchdown. So while Vaughn is a threat to score from distance, if Texas can stop his long runs, they are likely to keep him from scoring touchdowns on the ground.
Until Nebraska quarterback transfer Adrian Martinez suffered a knee injury against TCU, he was the designated red-zone battering ram, racking up eight touchdowns on 23 carries. However, the availability of Martinez remains in question and could force Will Howard into his third start against the Longhorns.
Howard is perhaps more dangerous as a runner outside the red area with several long touchdown runs in his career, including a 71-yard score against Texas last season, but he does also have six red-zone touchdown runs in his career and is a more talented passer than Martinez, who struggled with interceptions at Nebraska, but has avoided throwing any in his 140 passing attempts at Kansas State.
The targets in the passing game for whichever quarterback starts are solid, led by three senior receivers — Malik Knowles, Phillip Brooks, and Kade Warner. Brooks leads the trio in yards per catch, while Warner leads with four touchdowns, and Knowles has the most receptions and yardage. It’s a solid, experienced group, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that Klein hasn’t used Vaughn more often in the passing game. Last season, the Round Rock product led the team in receptions (49), finished second in receiving yards (468), and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (four), but only has 23 catches for 130 yards and one touchdown in 2022.
Kansas State has only allowed 10 sacks this season with the offensive line ranking No. 25 in passing down sack rate, but that group has struggled with its power success rate and stuff rate.
Although Klieman was forced to remove his longtime offensive coordinator, longtime defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman continues to achieve at a higher level with a well-coached group that develops talent well, ranking No. 7 in FEI by limiting efficiency, touchdown rate, and value drives — this won’t be the best defense Texas has faced this season, but it is similar in ranking, structure, and personnel type to Iowa State, which slots just behind Kansas State in FEI.
Utilizing aspects of Iowa State’s flyover defense, Klanderman’s group is willing to concede some first downs and doesn’t force a large number of busted drives, but is opportunistic, especially at home, with all 11 interceptions and five of the six forced fumbles coming at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Texas has neutralized edge defenders well this season, including Alabama’s Will Anderson and Iowa State’s Will McDonald, but Kansas State’s Felix Anudike-Uzomah is one of the best in the country with nine tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, providing another challenge for freshman left tackle Kelvin Banks and the rest of the Texas offensive line.
At the second level, the key development is whether starting middle linebacker Daniel Green will be available after suffering an injury against TCU — Green is the quarterback of the defense and has two interceptions this season. At weakside linebacker, former high school wrestler Austin Moore leads the team in tackles with 55 while adding seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
In the secondary, Kansas State relies heavily on three transfers at the safety positions. At strong safety, Kobe Savage is a junior college transfer who is second on the team in tackles and has two interceptions. At free safety, Josh Hayes is in his sixth season after playing for North Dakota State and Virginia in previous stops and ranks third on the team in tackles and has 5.5 tackles for loss. The third safety, Drake Cheatum, is a Prairie View A&M product who is fourth on the team in tackles and has a forced fumble.
Kansas State has given up five plays of 50 yards or more this season, including a 65-yard touchdown catch by TCU’s Derius Davis and a 55-yard touchdown catch by TCU’s Quentin Johnston, so opponents have been able to create some explosive plays, but the Wildcats are largely a sound, experienced group that makes up for lacking elite athleticism by understanding and executing Klanderman’s scheme.
If Green can’t play, backup Nick Allen should fill in for him capably at linebacker — Allen is also a senior — but the secondary effect is that Kansas State will have to remove their captain on the kickoff and punt coverage units, increasing the possibility that Texas could become the first team to break a long return against the Wildcats this season.
On punt return, Brooks had a 76-yard touchdown return against Missouri during the non-conference schedule and Knowles is a proven threat on punt returns with a 58-yard against Oklahoma.
Senior Ty Zentner is the third-year starter at punter for the Wildcats and is adequate, but also took over place-kicking duties in the blowout of the Cowboys, making both from inside 30 yards after sophomore Chris Tennant missed two attempts of more than 40 yards in the previous game. So the field-goal kicking could be questionable from distance — Kansas State is likely to attempt fourth-down conversions in that part of the field against Texas.
In the season’s only loss to Kansas State, the Wildcats threw two interceptions, missed two field goals, and had a turnover on downs in their own territory in blowing a 28-10 lead by failing to score at all in the second half. In other words, Klieman’s team beat itself against TCU.
But that seems unlikely at home against Texas this weekend, so circle the turnover battle, especially since Kansas State is so effective in that area at home, and third-down conversions since the Longhorns have often struggled in that area on defense, but face an opponent that has struggled in that area on offense.