KU Football: Can the Jayhawks Upset the Wildcats in the Finale?

NCAA Football: Kansas State at KansasIn the KU football season finale, the Jayhawks take on in-state rival Kansas State. Overall, Kansas leads the series 64-44-5. It promises to be a huge road test for the Jayhawks, who are coming off a huge upset of the Texas Longhorns. Kansas State is playing for a better bowl, and their seniors. KSU head coach Bill Snyder always gets his teams up to play the Jayhawks.  Can KU bring the Governor’s Cup back to Lawrence?

Nov 28, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas State Wildcats running back Charles Jones (24) is tackled by Kansas Jayhawks safety Michael Glatczak (39) in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, KU has to stop the Wildcat ground game.

The K-State ground game is the lifeblood of their offense, and it has multiple dimensions. The run-pass option is a key component of the Wildcat attack, so the KU football defense has to maintain eye discipline. KSU head coach Bill Snyder and offensive coordinator Dana Dimel utilize several players on the ground. Quarterback Jesse Ertz is their leading rusher with 676 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. Snyder announced that redshirt freshman Alex Barnes will start at running back. The Pittsburg, Kansas native has been KSU’s most explosive back so far, averaging 7.4 yards per carry. KSU is the 34th ranked rushing attack in the country, averaging 212 yards per game on over five yards per carry.

The Jayhawk defense should follow the model they used last week against Texas. D’Onta Foreman rushed for over 250 yards, but it took him 50 carries to do so. Overall, the Longhorns rushed for 238, on only 3.8 yards per carry. The Jayhawks have to keep KSU behind the chains as well. They did great at that against Texas, and will need to do so again. It’s not surprising to those who have watched KU games this year, but they Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in third down defense, at only 35%. If Kansas holds the Wildcats to that third down percentage and rushing average, they’ll have a fighting chance to pull the upset.

Nov 19, 2016; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) gets pushed out of bounds by Texas Longhorns cornerback John Bonney (24) at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

Can KU score on the hard-nosed Wildcat defense?

Like most of Bill Snyder’s teams at Kansas State, this one boasts a tough defense led by safety Dante Barnett, linebacker Elijah Lee, and defensive tackle Jordan Willis. Each has a chance to play on Sunday’s. The Wildcat defense allows the fewest yards per game in the Big 12, at only 390. However, this is a little misleading because the Wildcats don’t allow opponents to run many plays. They lead the conference in time of possession, at over 31 minutes per game. In defensive efficiency (yards/play), the Wildcats actually rank eighth in the conference, allowing nearly six yards per play.

To beat the Wildcat defense, Kansas quarterback Carter Stanley will have to play the best game of his life. The Wildcats are only 118th in the country in pass defense, allowing 280 yards per game through the air. They’re prone to giving up big plays through the air as well, allowing 8.1 yards per attempt, ahead of only putrid Texas Tech in the Big 12. Defensive coordinator Tom Hayes likes to play a conservative, zone defense against the pass. The Jayhawk receivers should find plenty of space underneath the zones in the short and intermediate passing game.

The Jayhawk rushing attack will face one if its biggest challenges of the season. Kansas State is one of the best rush defenses in the country, allowing only 111 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush, both tops in the Big 12. On the other side of the football, KU’s rushing attack has struggled most of the year, only gaining 120 yards per game on the ground. Lately, it’s been much better. The numbers weren’t eye-popping against Texas (39 attempts for 112 yards), but Ke’Aun Kinner and Carter Stanley each had timely rushes late in the game to put KU in a position to win. That same formula will apply on Saturday. Run well enough to keep the defense honest, and get some timely chunk plays on the ground.

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Can KU win the turnover battle again?

Finally, turnovers will be a huge key. Last week, the Jayhawks forced six turnovers against Texas, getting them much-needed possessions and keeping the defense off the field. They’ll have a much tougher test against the Wildcats. Snyder’s KSU teams always play smart football, and rarely commit bad turnovers. This year is no different. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in turnover margin, at nearly +1 per game. They’ve lost only five fumbles all season, or just three more than Texas lost last week. KU is still a turnover behind per game, and will have to improve markedly on that to stay in the game.

Thankfully for KU fans, Carter Stanley has been much more careful with the football than Montell Cozart and Ryan Willis. Stanley will have to continue the trend of not throwing interceptions. The freshman has only thrown one in each of his two starts. I don’t expect KU to be +4 in the turnover battle like last week, but they at least have to be ahead in turnover margin to be competitive on the road, and in one of the tougher environments in the conference. The Jayhawks have rallied around Stanley, as Beaty said this week, “The chemistry has been really, really good with him out there. I think those kids respect him because they’ve watched his work ethic, they’ve watched him with class continue to get better, and when his turn was called, he steps up and he makes plays, and he’s fearless.”

Special teams will be key as well. Beaty discussed how the return game will be crucial, “We really haven’t had any return game since that Ohio game, and that’s not ok. We can’t do that, so we’re going to have to continue to work to find explosive returners because this team is a great example of it.”

Nov 19, 2016; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks fans run onto the field after the win over the Texas Longhorns 24-21 at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

Bottom line for KU football’s season.

Sadly, this is the final KU football game of the season. We’ve seen great improvement in the program over last year, especially on defense. Beaty acknowledged that as well, “In this team, this year, I can’t say enough about how well our defense has played. We, I have stressed so much about if we can become a team in this conference that plays good defense, that we can change it, because there’s not many teams in the conference that have done that with any steady regularity.”

The offense has taken strides as well, especially with Carter Stanley seemingly at least the short-term answer at quarterback. The coaching staff is doing well at developing each unit. The offensive line is much better than it was early in the season, Stanley is improving at quarterback, and the skill positions remain a strength.

I look for KU to keep this game close, at least early on. However, I can’t see the Jayhawks playing mistake-free football and stopping the run long enough to make it a close game into the fourth quarter. KSU keeps the Governor’s Cup, and pulls within 19 games of the Jayhawks in the football rivalry. Final score: 38-17 Wildcats.

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