K-State looks to end season on high note against UCLA

Kansas State won four of its last five games, with redshirt freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson starting the last three.
AP/Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

PHOENIX — Kansas State and UCLA know what it is like to come up big on bowl day, especially when they face each other.

Three years after UCLA held off the Wildcats 40-35 in the 2014 Alamo Bowl, the teams will renew the rivalry in the 29th Cactus Bowl at Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks that becomes a football venue once a year.

The matchup appears to have the ingredients of another back-and-forth game. Points have not been a problem for either school this season. UCLA (6-6) scored 405 points during the regular season and Kansas State (7-5) had 385, both averaging more than 30 per game. Each has scored at least 40 points four times.

Stage fright will not be an issue, either. Kansas State is making its eighth consecutive bowl appearance — a streak that is tied for 13th in the FBS — and its 19th under coach Bill Snyder, who twice has turned the program around, once following a short retirement.

UCLA has played in bowl games five times in the last six seasons, although its inability to land a berth in a major bowl played a factor in the school’s decision to fire coach Jim Mora after a loss to USC in November. The Bruins have not been to the Rose Bowl since 1999.

Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly was hired to replace Mora, and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will coach the Bruins here.

“I’ve tried to tell our guys the same thing — my mindset is what their mindset should be,” Fisch said about approaching the game. “After the (bowl game), there is going to be so much newness for them, whether it be all the guys who are graduating or a couple of guys leaving early possibly. New recruits. New coaches.

“If they get distracted, they are not going to be at their best” against Kansas State. “We are really trying to spend all our time on where our feet are today.”

Each team enters on a bit of a roll — Kansas State won four of its last five, with redshirt freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson starting the last three.

UCLA won two of its last three behind junior quarterback Josh Rosen, who appears to be a certain top-10 selection in the NFL draft if he opts to bypass his senior year. The Bruins were fifth in passing offense and 19th in total offense among FBS schools entering the bowl season.

Rosen has passed for 3,717 yards and 26 touchdowns despite missing time with injuries, including a concussion, and he passed for at least 400 yards in four games this season. The Bruins are awaiting medical clearance for him to play in the Cactus Bowl.

Rosen had a career-high 491 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-44 victory over Texas A&M in the season opener, when he threw four touchdown passes in the final 13:22 to help the Bruins overcome a 44-17 deficit for the biggest comeback in program history. Rosen passed for 292 yards in the fourth quarter.

Kansas State has faced top quarterbacks in Big 12 conference play the past several seasons in Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph.

“It’s interesting that we are (playing another elite quarterback),” Snyder said. “What’d be more interesting is if we could get one of them stopped. I don’t know that there’s anything that really separates (Rosen). I think all of them are quality quarterbacks, excellent quarterbacks. That’s not just my opinion; I think that’s virtually everyone’s opinion.

“He (Rosen) is good at processing information. He makes good decisions. He has patience and works through his progressions, and is an accurate thrower. He can put some velocity on the ball as well, and I think that’s something (that) probably describes all three of them as much as anything.”

Thompson is the most recent of the three starting quarterbacks Kansas State has used this season. A knee injury in the fifth game sidelined first-stringer Jesse Ertz, a senior who was the MVP of the Wildcats’ 33-28 Texas Bowl victory over Texas A&M last season. Sophomore Alex Delton started four games before Thompson moved into the position.

Thompson threw for 204 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-40 victory over Rudolph and then-No. 10 Oklahoma State on Nov. 18. His quarterback efficiency rating in five games is 152.8.

That day, Rosen passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-23 loss to arch-rival USC. His efficiency rating this season is 146.4.

“A young guy that maintains his poise and has an appropriate level of confidence about him,” Snyder said of Thompson. “His execution is very consistent and has been consistently good.”

The Wildcats’ only loss in the last five was to No. 23 West Virginia. Their two most recent losses before the one to the Mountaineers were to No. 2 Oklahoma and top-15 team TCU. UCLA has beaten bowl teams Arizona State, Oregon and Texas A&M.

When the teams met in the 2014 Alamo Bowl, UCLA rolled to a 31-6 lead behind quarterback Brett Hundley before the Wildcats responded with 22 of the next 25 points to make it a game. Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters threw for 388 yards and two touchdowns.