Big Noon Kickoff and the No. 23 Kansas State Wildcats come to the Forty Acres this Saturday at 11 a.m. Central on FOX as Steve Sarkisian and the No. 7 Texas Longhorns test their versatility once again without the help of quarterback Quinn Ewers for the second straight week.
The Longhorns proved their culture last week against Cougars with all three sides of the ball rising to the challenge and supporting the talented but inexperienced Maalik Murphy. The defense in particular proved their quality, holding BYU to six points on the day, but this week’s matchup may prove to be their greatest remaining regular-season challenge.
“Kansas State obviously is a really hot team right now, “ Sarkisian said Monday. “They’ve been playing as good as anybody in the country in all three phases for the last two to three weeks. We’re going to need to play complimentary football Saturday against a very good, well-coached football team in Kansas State. ”
Led by their aggressive rushing attack, powerful offensive line, and a hard-hitting defense, head coach Chris Klieman and Kansas State have outscored their last two opponents, TCU and Houston, 83–3, as this Wildcats team has gotten hot as of late.
As Kansas State hopes to keep their Big 12 title hopes alive, and Texas hopes to remain in the CFP discussion, this game will have serious implications for both teams moving forward. If the Wildcats wish to snap the six-game losing streak they currently hold against the Longhorns, their physicality and running game will be the answer.
Offensive coordinator Collin Klein and the Wildcats run a power spread offense, highlighted by their ingenuity in the running game, strong, experienced offensive line and two talented quarterbacks. They start fast and are incredibly efficient in the red area, ranking second in the nation in red-zone touchdowns with 33 on the season and 17th in the nation in red-zone efficiency.
After two early losses to begin the season against Mizzou and Oklahoma State, this offense has been on a tear the last two weeks after dropping 41 points in each of their last two matchups.
“We’ve got to keep building on what we’ve done the last couple of weeks,” offensive coordinator Collin Klein told ESPN. “That’s to win the line of scrimmage and make people change and defend the width of the field with some of our jets and some of our run game that has a lot of variety to it with where it can hurt you. We’ve got to continue to push the envelope to establish those explosive plays down the field.”
They run a multitude of rushing schemes in this offense, whether behind standout running back DJ Giddens, designed quarterback runs by either of their two quarterbacks, or the variety of jet sweeps they like run so frequently, all of which are powered by their incredible offensive line led by fifth-year senior right guard Cooper Beebe. The creativity of Klein’s playbook to utilize the talented rushers on this offense in many different ways is what makes them a difficult matchup for Texas. They can be a run-it-down-your-throat kind of squad, but also like to run in creative ways that highlight the ground game in many different ways.
The quarterback situation has been interesting this year for the Wildcats with their use of both senior quarterback Will Howard and the freshman four-star phenom Avery Johnson. Due to some turnover issues from Howard to start the season, Johnson has gained more of a role in this offense, however, both QBs play a significant role in Klein’s system.
“They’re both really good players,” said Sarkisian. “Howard definitely has the long speed, and the freshman [Johnson] is really quick and dynamic with the ball in his hands. But in the end, they’re still running their same stuff, a little bit different style, so you kind of get a lot of the same plays and the passing concepts.”
Howard is massive, standing at 6’5, 242 pounds, and is able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver accurate throws under duress. He’s hard to take dow, and kind of feels like a Josh Allen or young Ben Roethlisberger type of quarterback. A speedy and bruising runner, like the Bills quarterback, Howard is able to use his legs in a multitude of different ways, from long runs like his 71-yard run against Oklahoma State to using his big frame to pick up short yard first downs or red-zone touchdowns.
Johnson on the other hand is much smaller. Standing at 6’2 , 188 pounds, he is shifty and dynamic with the ball in his hands and feels like a taller Kyler Murray on the move. He primarily uses his legs through designed quarterback runs, but is also more than capable of taking shots downfield.
Klein seems to ride the hot hand when choosing a quarterback to roll out, with Howard dominating the reps last week against Houston and Johnson seeing more action against TCU in Week Eight.
Turnover troubles are what led to Johnson seeing the field more after Howard coughed it up seven times in their first five games, including three against Oklahoma State. Despite the struggles from the veteran quarterback, I still think Howard is their best option in the passing game, especially after his incredible showing last week against Houston.
Howard completed his first 12 passes of the game to six different receivers and finished 15-of-17 passing for 164 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a QBR of 94.8.
“I’ve gained my confidence back,” Howard said after his impressive Houston performance. “I feel really good about how I’ve been playing and how we’ve been playing, when your defense is shutting guys out, and your offensive line is playing how our offensive line is, it’s hard not to play with confidence.”
As the old John Madden quote says, “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.” It will be interesting to see how this duo continues to develop over the course of the season even though both seemingly take a backseat to Giddens and the run game.
The heart and soul of this Wildcats offense is centered around their ability to run the football and the third-year sophomore Giddens has answered the call. Much like Jonathan Brooks shocked the nation after the loss of Bijan Robinson to the NFL, Giddens has done the same after the departure of Deuce Vaughn.
Giddens is a 6’1, 212-pound, do-it-all back who drives this offense. With 722 yards and seven touchdowns on 116 carries, Giddens is currently the 27th-leading rusher in the nation while operating in the fifth-best rushing offense in the nation. Giddens is a downhill runner, who can effectively find holes and break tackles in the open field, making his presence known this year against UCF in Week Four when he totaled 207 yards and four touchdowns on 30 touches.
Giddens is also an effective pass catcher out of the backfield with 21 receptions for 240 yards, making him the third-leading receiver on this Wildcats roster.
The dynamic Giddens is accompanied by fifth-year Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward. At 5’10, 194 pounds, Ward acts as the change-of-pace back who is fast in the open field and also an effective pass catcher with 13 receptions for 104 yards on the season.
Ward has totaled 458 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 87 attempts on the season. Both backs average a high yards per carry with Giddens at 6.2 ypc and Ward at 5.3 ypc, and are able to find massive holes created by their impressive run-blocking offensive line.
The Kansas State offensive line returned all five starters from last year and has been a dominant force this season, especially in the run game. The continuity and experience of this group, along with their talent, are what make them so dominant. All five starters had an opportunity to leave last year and all decided to stick around for one more season.
“Right now we’re not installing things. We’re cleaning up things we had this past season, because fortunately we bring a lot of guys back and we have a ton of experience,” fifth-year senior center Hayden Gillum said at the beginning of the season. “We set the standard high, and last year was kind of the groundwork and the foundation and now everything we did last year, it’s just the minimum. We know we can ramp it up from here.”
The front line is led by Beebe (6’4, 335 pounds), the number one interior offensive lineman in the nation, according to PFF — a 94.0 pass-blocking grade over the last two seasons is the best in the country among all offensive lineman because he hasn’t allowed a sack since 2021 over 770 pass-blocking snaps.
With only four quarterback hurries, two quarterbacks hits, and zero sacks allowed while playing at left guard, Beebe is a dominant force and defining factor in the Wildcat’s red-zone and rushing efficiencies.
This offensive line as a whole has been good at protecting the quarterback, allowing the 24th-least sacks in the nation with 10.
This unit holds four fifth-year seniors and one junior who have all been with the Wildcats for the entirety of their collegiate career.
The wide receiving corps has certainly taken a backseat to the rushing attack, but there are still many pieces to this unit that must be accounted for because Klein runs a passing game that is much different than most offenses in college football with jet sweeps, tight end utilization, and passes to the running back out of the backfield.
Howard is certainly capable of connecting with receivers downfield, as seen last week against Houston, although most of the passing game is in front of the sticks to fifth-year receiver Phillip Brooks out of the slot and junior tight end Ben Sinnott.
Brooks is the team’s leading receiver in yards, receptions, and touchdowns with 39 receptions for 437 yards and three touchdowns. He has a smaller frame, standing at 5’8, 171 pounds, but the is quick off of the line of scrimmage and able to create space downfield with his speed. Teams are also often so dedicated to stopping the run that Brooks is able to find holes in zone coverage out of the slot.
The second-leading receiver in all categories is Sinnott despite only one reception for six yards over the past two games due to an injury sustained against TCU in Week Seven. Even though Sinnott is not listed on this weeks injury report, if he is unable to make a major impact this Saturday, it would be an incredible blow to the Kansas State passing game.
“I think they’ve got phenomenal players all around out there,” Howard said of the Texas secondary. “I think their scheme is pretty vanilla, I think they kind of do what they do — the schemes that we’re looking at, are a little more simple than what we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, but it’s still equally as challenging because we know they do it so well.”
Strong words to describe the 15th-best scoring defense that is currently only allowing 16 points per game. With the Wildcats facing their most formidable defensive front of the season so far, the passing game and wide receivers will likely be forced to step up if Howard and Kansas State hope to move the ball effectively in Austin.
Defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman enters his fifth season with the Wildcats as defensive coordinator for one of the best defenses in the Big 12 over the last five seasons. The Wildcats primarily run a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that loves to attack the backfield from many different positions.
After only allowing three points in their last two matchups, this defense is defined by their physicality. They are fast and they hit hard. Highlighted by their high blitz rate, the Wildcats send a multitude of different rushers out of the secondary and make offenses uncomfortable with their physicality.
Kansas State is tied with Texas interestingly enough in sacks with 19 for the 45th most in the nation. With only three down lineman, Klanderman and the Wildcats disguise coverages well and often send different linebackers to blitz the quarterback and make them uncomfortable. Eleven different players on this Kansas State defense have recorded a sack on the season with many are used in different blitzing schemes.
How the linebackers and secondary have improved over the last two weeks has been their tackling in the open field and limiting big plays — in the last two weeks the Wildcats have not allowed a play over 35 yards.
However, they don’t create a lot of turnovers — with only 10 on the season the wildcats defense ranks 78th in creating turnovers despite having a talented linebacking corps and defensive line that creates chaos for opposing quarterbacks.
After allowing only three points and 508 total yards in the last two games, this Wildcats defense has gotten hot midway through the season, currently ranking in the top 25 nationally in third-down defense (6th, 28.9 percent), scoring defense (14th, 15.9 ppg), pass efficiency defense (16th, 114.14), and rushing defense (23rd, 109.4 yds/gm), following a trend since Kansas State switched to a 3-3-5 alignment two years ago, the Wildcats have allowed just 20.2 points per game, tied for 15th nationally and first in the conference.
The defensive line is led by fifth-year senior left defensive end Khalid Duke and fourth-year junior Nate Matlack on the other end. Duke (6’4, 246 pounds) leads the team in sacks with five on the season. He’s not the largest defensive end, but is able to use his technique to get into the backfield as blitzing linebackers confuse the front line. Matlack (6’5, 249 pounds) is second on the team in sacks with four.
The pass rush has been relatively effective this year, especially over the last two games, but the Wildcats have allowed an average of 135 yards per game against Big 12 opponents, including two 100-plus yard rushers against TCU and Oklahoma State. Despite these big games, the defense ranks 23rd in rush defense.
The most impressive aspect of this unit, and the defense as a whole, is their ability to play well together. Five different linebackers have recorded a sack as they are all used dynamically in different blitzing schemes. With the multitude of schemes they run to rush different linebackers on each down, this defense can be confusing, never quite knowing who Klanderman will send on any given down.
Fifth-year senior Austin Moore leads the linebackers with 43 total tackles and 1.5 sacks on the season and is the leader of this defense, in the locker room and on the field. Moore is flanked by third-year sophomore Desmond Purnell, who has totaled 30 tackles on the year, 19 on his own.
Together, this unit is in sync, and coupled with the physicality of their secondary, can create havoc for opposing offensive coordinators.
The secondary is talented, and much like the rest of the team, rely on their physicality to make wide receivers uncomfortable and limit their ability to create space. Not as talented in creating turnovers through interceptions, but instead in their ability to tackle effectively and limit big plays that break into the second level.
The defense currently ranks 16th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, allowing only 114.1 passing yards per game, limiting opposing passing games through physical coverage downfield which can lead to coverage sacks for the front seven.
Cornerbacks Will Lee III & Jacob Parrish lead the defensive backs in this unit. Lee is a 6’3, 185-pound sophomore, and leads the secondary in interceptions with two. Also a sophomore Parrish leads the team in pass deflections with eight and is seemingly the unit’s best in man-to-man coverage.
Parrish and Lee will have their hands full with Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell this week, although with the high blitz percentage of the Kansas State defense, they mostly run zone coverage schemes.
Safeties Kobe Savage and Marques Sigle protect the back end of this defense. While Savage has two interceptions on the season, their most impressive ability lies in their tackling — both have 29 solo tackles on the season and act as effective safety nets against big plays that break past the linebackers.
Chris Tennant handles the kicking duties and has a long leg with a season-high 51-yard field goal, but he rarely is asked to work outside of extra points, as the Wildcats have only attempted nine field goals this season. Of those he is 7-of-9 on the year.
Brooks handles the majority of kick and punt returns for the Wildcats. This season hasn’t seen anything special from the return unit with an average kickoff return of 18 yards and an average punt return of 7.5.
The Longhorns will definitely have their hands full this Saturday, as the Wildcats one of the more aggressive and run-heavy teams they have faced all season.
With Texas ranking the seventh-best red-zone defense, and Kansas State ranking the best offense in red-zone efficiency, an unstoppable force is set to meet an immovable object.
The game plan for the Longhorns on defense will be to win the line of scrimmage against a powerful Wildcats offensive line. So even though Texas has one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, this might be the best offensive line they face all season. Kansas State can not be allowed to play at their pace and run the ball all over Texas, which must contain Giddens and force Howard or Johnson to throw the ball to a stable of receivers who have been underutilized all season.
On offense, Texas has to match Kansas State’s physicality.
“I think it’s really important that we focus on us and what we need to do that the details and the level of physicality in which we play the game are at the forefront of what we do,” Sarkisian said.
The Wildcats currently have the 14th-best scoring defense, the 16th-best pass-efficiency defense, and the 23rd-best rushing defense. Two backs have eclipsed 100 yards against this Wildcats defense — it’s time for Brooks to become No. 3.
This game will be won in the trenches. Texas must contain Gidden and these creative rushing schemes with their front seven, while protecting Murphy against the onslaught of different blitzers that Kansas State will surely send.
Texas is favored by by 4.5 points, according to Draft Kings.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.