The Texas Longhorns might as well walk onto the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday afternoon with a shovel in hand.
In finally overcoming a prominent opponent in No. 22 USC, and doing the same last Saturday against No. 17 TCU, which had handled the Longhorns by 120 points dating back to 2014, head coach Tom Herman’s program has spent the previous two weeks burying portions of its forgettable past.
Yet again, Saturday will present a similar opportunity.
Riding a three-game winning streak, which marks the program’s most successful stretch since 2014 — perhaps even beyond 2014 if you consider the two ranked wins in two weeks — Texas will travel to Manhattan, Kansas, where the Horns haven’t escaped with a win since 2002, a stretch that spans 16 years.
“Our program hasn’t won in Manhattan, Kansas since Caden Sterns was two years old,” Herman said during his Monday afternoon press conference. “So that is no small feat, certainly. And we don’t take that very lightly. And in our only road contest this year we obviously did not play very well. So we’re preparing our tails off.”
If Texas prepares appropriately, it will exorcise yet another purple demon after doing so just days ago against TCU.
Although K-State isn’t quite as imposing of an opponent on paper as it has been in previous meetings in Manhattan, Texas’ inability to leave the Little Apple with a win in its last five attempts speaks for itself. This time around, the two programs appear to be headed in entirely opposite directions with 3-1 Texas seemingly trending towards national relevance, while Snyder’s Wildcats, at 2-2, are on the edge of entering desperation mode.
The Longhorns have enjoyed a 38-point advantage in their wins over USC (37-14) and TCU (31-16), while the only wins for the Wildcats this season have come over FCS South Dakota, 27-24, and over UTSA (1-3). K-State’s two Power Five opponents to this point — No. 18 Mississippi State and No. 12 West Virginia — have cruised past Snyder’s program, outscoring the Wildcats 66-16.
On paper, essentially across the board, Texas should have few problems dealing K-State a similar fate, and recent history seems to hint to that as the Wildcats have lost 11 consecutive games at home against ranked competition. Ironically, though, Kansas State’s last win over a ranked opponent in the Little Apple came in 2012, in which Texas was also ranked No. 18, as it is now.
Is history set to repeat itself on Saturday?
New coordinators, a quarterback controversy, and team struggling to find its footing — sound familiar? Alas, though, such sentiments are centered around an opponent and not Texas.
Snyder’s program is navigating unfamiliar waters four games into the season, and the results have been equally as unrecognizable. For the first time since Snyder’s return to Manhattan in 2009, his offense is helmed by an offensive coordinator not named Dana Dimel, who departed for a head coaching role at UTEP. Attempting to fill Dimel’s shoes — unsuccessfully thus far — is former Kansas State wide receiver Andre Coleman, who was promoted to his new position from his previous role as the wide receivers coach.
So far, so bad.
Kansas State’s offense is mustering just 347 yards per game, which ranks ninth in the 10-team Big 12, and through four appearances, the 21 points per game average is the worst effort the program has endured in nearly three decades, all the way back to when the Wildcats averaged only 12 points per game in 1989.
The passing game has produced such unsavory results that Snyder overruled his offensive staff and pulled starting quarterback Skylar Thompson late in last week’s blowout loss to West Virginia and inserted Alex Delton, who is regarded as the inferior passer of the two. In what amounted to garbage time minutes, Delton completed 7-of-12 attempts for 82 yards, but his season-long completion percentage sits below .500 (15-of-31) with one touchdown to two interceptions.
Delton is, however, the more formidable rusher of the bunch, as Texas learned last season when Jesse Ertz went down with an injury and Delton diced the Longhorns defense up for 75 yards and two scores on the ground.
Delton is a running back that can throw okay, as long as he doesn’t have to read through a progression,” said JT VanGlider of Bring on the Cats. “When he’s in, there is a lot more zone-read, QB draw, and RPO-style plays, with a couple of “Go” route-type plays thrown in.
If Delton can find some semblance of consistency in the passing game, he does have a pair of intriguing options to rely upon in emerging star Isaiah Zuber and Dalton Schoen, who have hauled in 33 receptions for 550 yards through the air. Keep in mind, Schoen torched Texas for 128 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, but there’s little to speak of beyond the two juniors in a wide receiver corps that has largely struggled holding onto the ball this season.
For a veteran-laden Texas secondary that’s certainly finding its stride and ranks 12th nationally with six interceptions, there’s likely relatively little worry about what Kansas State will do through the air.
As a team, the Texas Longhorns are fielding their lowest passer rating since we began grading college football pic.twitter.com/dkgMmYYT5W— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 27, 2018
The damage Delton can do on the ground, however, is another story.
As Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando noted this week, Delton has another gear, which brings a different dynamic to a K-State ground game desperate for some success.
Delton has attempted only 31 passes this season, yet he’s taken off to run 30 times, netting 116 yards. Considering Delton, an already inconsistent passer, will line up behind an offensive line that has allowed 15 sacks and 33 total tackles for loss, which respectively rank as the 122nd- and 123rd-worst efforts nationally, Texas should expect to see a heavy dose of quarterback draws, RPOs, and designed scrambles in hopes of bolstering a ground game that’s been equally as unimpressive as the passing attack.
“It’s been really frustrating,” running back Alex Barnes said of K-State’s inability to establish a imposing ground game, per 247Sports. “Especially, like I’ve said before, with all of the expectations and stuff we came in with the ground game, not being able to get anywhere close towards that, the 200-yard margin we set for ourselves and the more difficult games.”
Barnes’ frustrations are especially understandable.
The physical junior entered 2018 aiming to build upon an 819-yard sophomore slate, only to see his rushing totals regress each game. After totaling 103 yards against South Dakota, Barnes compiled 75 yards against Mississippi State, 50 yards against UTSA, and most recently, only 49 yards against West Virginia.
Worse yet, he’ll now see a swarming Texas defense that’s allowing only 117 rushing yards per contest, and the Longhorns will likely overwhelm the box even more aggressively with the Wildcats offense lacking a credible passing game when Delton is behind center.
Coleman isn’t the only new coordinator on campus. After implementing his bend-but-don’t-break philosophy for the past six seasons to considerable success, defensive coordinator Tom Hayes is now enjoying retirement and former Kansas State walk-on and defensive ends coach Blake Seiler is on the sidelines in his place after serving as the assistant defensive coordinator in 2017.
So far, so bad.
After losing key contributors such as linebackers Jayd Kirby and Will Geary, who combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2017, K-State’s front seven has struggled mightily to impose its will around the line of scrimmage.
The Wildcats are averaging only .75 sacks per game, which is tied for 123rd nationally, and the big bodies up front getting pushed around has paved the way for opponents to average 178 yards per game on the ground, which positions K-State’s rush defense at 87th in the nation.
While the talent on hand isn’t overwhelming, it’s not as if the Wildcats are without quality contributors. Defensive end Reggie Walker and defensive tackle Trey Dishon were each honorable mention All-Big 12 selections in 2017, and Da’Quan Patton has emerged as the new team leader with 22 tackles, but the productivity from the entire bunch just hasn’t been there.
The secondary is dealing with similar woes, although injuries haven’t helped much to that end.
What was expected to be the defense’s strength is now without starting safety Denzel Goolsby for the year, and safety Kendall Adams will be out as well when Texas visits Manhattan. Cornerback Walter Neil will also be held out due to injury. Four-year starting cornerback Duke Shelley is a notable presence on the outside with eight pass breakups through four games, but he’s undersized, as is AJ Parker at the cornerback spot opposite of him.
As a whole, Kansas State is allowing 231 passing yards per game (80th), and gave way to 356 yards to Will Grier and West Virginia. With Sam Ehlinger finding his stride in the pocket and 6’6 Collin Johnson and 6’4 Lil’Jordan Humphrey looking like budding stars on the outside, expect Texas to test Kansas State’s secondary early, and likely often.
All told, Kansas State’s defense is statistically near the bottom of the college football barrel in several key categories, including red zone defense (T-110th) and third down defense (119th).
On paper, Texas should control nearly every aspect of the game, aside from maybe special teams, even with offensive coordinator Tim Beck remaining in Austin due to an infection that required hospitalization. The Longhorns are undeniably the more talented bunch, and for the first time in a long time, that talent is coming together well enough that wins are slowly but surely becoming the expectation.
That said, Kansas State has beaten several teams it was expected to lost to under Synder’s guidance on numerous occasions, including Texas. Does the Purple Wizard have enough magic left to pull an upset out of his sleeve, and potentially salvage what’s been an unsavory start to the season?
In past years, the more likely answer would be yes, but thus far, Kansas State hasn’t proven it can even compete with Power Five competition. There’s little reason to believe that changes against the Longhorns.
Prediction: Texas 41, Kansas State 13