Vince Campisi's College Football Game Preview
Kansas State Wildcats vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
--by Vince Campisi
November 21st, 2009
6:45 PM CT
Television Coverage: ESPN
KANSAS STATE (6 - 5) (4 - 3)
#25 NEBRASKA (7 - 3) (4 - 2)
Weather Report for Kansas State vs. Nebraska
Opening: Nebraska by 15.
Current: Nebraska by 16.5.
09/05/09 - vs. Massachusetts - W 21-17
09/12/09 - at. Louisiana-Lafayette - L 15-17
09/19/09 - at. UCLA - L 9-23
09/26/09 - vs. Tennessee Tech - W 49-7
10/03/09 - at. Iowa State - W 24-23
10/10/09 - at. Texas Tech - L 14-66
10/17/09 - vs. Texas A&M - W 62-14
10/24/09 - vs. Colorado - W 20-6
10/31/09 - at. Oklahoma - L 30-42
11/07/09 - vs. Kansas - W 17-10
11/14/09 - vs. Missouri - L 12-38
11/21/09 - vs. Nebraska
09/05/09 - vs. Florida Atlantic - W 49-3
09/12/09 - vs. Arkansas State - W 38-9
09/19/09 - at. Virginia Tech - L 15-16
09/26/09 - vs. Louisiana-Lafayette - W 55-0
10/08/09 - at. Missouri - W 27-12
10/17/09 - vs. Texas Tech - L 10-31
10/24/09 - vs. Iowa State - L 7-9
10/31/09 - at. Baylor - W 20-10
11/07/09 - vs. Oklahoma W 10-3
11/14/09 - at. Kansas - W 31-17
11/21/09 - vs. Kansas State
11/27/09 - at. Colorado
Saturday will mark the 94th all-time meeting between Kansas State and Nebraska, first matching up in 1911. It has been one-sided over the years, with Nebraska dominating the series (76-15-2). Last season, Nebraska gained 610 yards on the Wildcats en route to a 56-28 victory. Kansas State was unable to stop the Nebraska rushing attack, which rammed it right at the Wildcats 53 times for 340 yards. Kansas State got 14 of those 28 points from Special Teams and Defense, with Cortney Herndon returning an interception for touchdown, and Brandon Banks taking a kickoff return for a score. The last time these teams met in Lincoln was in 2007, with another blowout victory in Nebraska's favor, 73-31. After a competitive first quarter that saw Nebraska leading 14-10, the Huskers put it into another gear with then-QB Joe Ganz airing it out for a total of 519 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Kansas State Offense
Kansas State's offense doesn't have a lot of flash, but does possess a few nice playmakers. They have done a good job of using a power running game to shorten football games. Last week against Missouri, they struggled to get things going on the ground, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, and failed to score a touchdown. The Wildcats are currently ranked 75th nationally in total offense (354.45 ypg), 105th in passing (170.91 ypg), 78th in passing efficiency (124.53 rating), 31st in rushing (183.55 ypg), 75th in scoring offense (24.82 ppg), 33rd in interceptions thrown (7), 63rd in fumbles lost (9), and 35th in giveaways (16).
QB: Sr. Grant Gregory (89 of 144, 970 yds, 4 TDs, 3 INTs) starts for the Wildcats at QB. He took over the quarterbacking duties as conference play began. In his second start, against Texas Tech, Gregory had his worst game of the season. He took unnecessary sacks and made bad decisions throughout the first half, before being pulled. He has improved greatly since that point in the season, and is doing a pretty nice job of running this rush based offense. His arm is a bit inconsistent, however, as he'll occasionally show good strength and accuracy, but will also have stretches in which he is off the mark. This is especially true when the opposition is able to get a good amount of pressure on him. Last week he was able to catch the Missouri defense in some compromising positions and move the ball through the air (21 of 30, 239 yds, 1 INT). He couldn't get his offense to finish drives, however. He gets the job done for this offense with his feet, though, and in that phase he is very good. He's a tough runner that has taken some big hits this year and bounced right back up. He runs the speed option very well, and does a nice job with the zone-read option. He's a patient runner, waits for blocks, and while he doesn't have tremendous speed, he does make big plays running the ball. This season, Gregory has rushed for 286 yards on 93 carries (lost nearly 100 yards on sacks). Behind Gregory is Jr. Carson Coffman (71 of 117, 860 yds, 2 TDs, 4 INTs). He doesn't have the same escapability and foot speed that Gregory has, which is part of the reason he was benched earlier in the year. Coffman has carried the ball 54 times for 64 yards (lost over 100 yards in sacks).
RB: The Wildcats' running game is led by Jr. Daniel Thomas (228 carries, 1166 yds, 11 TDs). Thomas was playing QB last year for his Junior College team, and this year is the Big XII's leading rusher (106 ypg). He's the workhorse of the offense, and the offense's success depends upon how well he plays. He's a big bodied power runner that is tough to bring down, however, he also has great speed and a killer spin move that has left many defenders in the dust. He does an excellent job of finding the hole and getting through it quickly. His legs never seem to stop churning, and he plows through arm and ankle tackles. Thomas isn't perfect, though, as he had a costly fumble against Missouri last week with the score 12-24. That fumble led to another Missouri touchdown, essentially putting the Wildcats in an almost impossible situation to come back from. He runs a lot of plays out of the wildcat formation, and is very dangerous from that spot. He has completed 3 out of 4 pass attempts for 50 yards and a touchdown this season. Backing up Thomas is Sr. Keithen Valentine (54 carries, 356 yds, 6 TDs) and RFr. Jarell Childs (13 carries, 79 yds). Valentine is a pretty good back, and offers a much different option compared to Thomas. While Thomas is 6'2", Valentine stands at just 5'8". As expected with a back of his size, he's quick, but doesn't have the power to churn out the extra yards like Thomas. Childs is a bigger back that runs with power, but doesn't quite have the foot speed that Thomas and Valentine have. The backs are used often in the passing game, with Thomas (21 catches, 206 yds) and Valentine (6 catches, 5 yds) both catching passes this season. At fullback is TFr. Braden Wilson (3 carries, 8 yds; 4 catches, 33 yds), with Jr. Lucas Hamm backing him up. Wilson hasn't touched the ball a whole lot this season, but has good hands and the size of a tight end. He is a pretty solid run blocker, but needs to work on picking up the blitzer while in pass protection.
WR/TE: The Wildcats' receiving corps is pretty top heavy, with a few established guys but little proven depth behind them. Starting at the receiver positions are Sr. Brandon Banks (51 catches, 657 yds, 1 TD) and Sr. Attrail Snipes (27 catches, 400 yds, 2 TDs). Banks is the most dangerous man on the football field, and uses his small stature to find openings in the defensive backfield. He's slippery, and if a defensive back isn't careful, he's get open get some big yards. Banks also is used in the run game and has done well running the reverse. He's rushed for 92 yards on 10 carries this season. Snipes is a good route runner with decent hands, but he does tend to drop a pass or two each week. Some of these drops stem from him catching the ball too much with his body, rather than his hands. Top reserves at receiver include Jr. Lamark Brown (18 catches, 215 yds, 2 TDs), RFr. Collin Klein (6 catches, 38 yds, 1 TD), Jr. Brice Vignery (3 catches, 27 yds), Jr. Sheldon Smith (3 catches, 27 yds), and So. Cole Bachamp (1 catch, 2 yds). Brown plays a lot each week, and there really isn't a drop-off between him and Snipes. He's got good size at 6'3", 225 lbs., as well as speed, making him a good downfield threat. He needs to work on his blocking on the perimeter, however, as he has not been very good in that area. At tight end is Sr. Jeron Mastrud (21 catches, 233 yds, 1 TD), with RFr. Travis Tannahill (2 catches, 37 yds) backing him up. Mastrud is a quality tight end, and one of the better in the Big XII this season. When the offense is rolling along at a good clip, it is usually because they are getting him the ball often in the passing game.
OL: Kansas State's offensive line has done a nice job rush blocking this season, while the pass protection has been spotty. Last week against a pretty good Missouri pass rush, the Wildcats struggled to keep them out of the backfield, even when they were only bringing their front four. Starting at tackle is Sr. Nick Stringer (6'6", 285 lbs) on the left and So. Clyde Aufner (6'7", 290 lbs) on the right. Stringer has decent athleticism, doesn't have much torque in the hips, and gets beaten often by quick defensive ends. He really struggled last week against Missouri's defensive ends. Aufner is the better of the two starting tackles in pass protection, but also gets beaten by quick ends. The top reserves at tackle are So. Zach Hanson (6'8", 320 lbs) and RFr. Ethan Douglas (6'6", 295 lbs). Starting at guard is Jr. Zach Kendall (6'3", 297 lbs) on the left and Jr. Kenneth Mayfield (6'4", 320 lbs) on the right. Kendall is a dependable run blocker, and is looking at his 17th career start this week. Mayfield is a load, and like the rest of the linemen, does a nice job when rush blocking. He committed a costly false start in the first half of last week's game that stalled a promising drive, with KSU settling for a FG. Jr. Trevor Viers (6'5", 284 lbs) and So. Colten Freeze (6'5", 290 lbs) serve as the top back-ups at guard. Starting at center is Jr. Wade Weibert (6'4", 290 lbs), with Sr. Eric Benoit (6'4", 294 lbs) backing him up. Weibert was a JUCO stand-out and moved from right guard to center earlier in the year.
Kansas State Defense
Kansas State's defense has played good fundamental football this year. As a whole, it isn't one of the more talented groups in the Big XII, but they play hard and force turnovers. They are really struggling to stop opposing passing attacks, however, and last week Missouri threw for nearly 298 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Wildcats currently rank 47th nationally in total defense (346.55 ypg), 90th in pass defense (240.73 ypg), 75th in pass efficiency defense (131.84 rating), 23rd in rush defense (105.82 ypg), 59th in scoring defense (23.91 ppg), 28th in interceptions forced (12), 12th in fumbles recovered (12), and 14th in total takeaways (24).
DL: The Wildcats' defensive line has been pretty good this season, but inconsistent. The defense is 6th in the Big XII against the run, giving up 105 yards per game. The group failed to get a good push up front against Missouri though, and gave up 135 yards on the ground (5.6 ypc). Starting at defensive end is Sr. Jeffrey Fitzgerald (32 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU) on the left and Jr. Antonio Felder (25 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) on the right. Fitzgerald is the best of the bunch, leading the unit in tackles, sacks, and even picked up an interception for touchdown against Texas Tech earlier this season. Felder has been fair off the right end, and was the only lineman to get a tackle for loss against Missouri last week. He will occasionally line up as a linebacker. Top reserves on the ends are Sr. Eric Childs (5 tackles, 0.5 sack), RFr. Joseph Kassanavoid (9 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR), and Jr. Grant Valentine (6 tackles). Childs started nearly all of last season, but has not factored into much of the defense this season, despite playing in every game. Starting at defensive tackle is Jr. Prizell Brown (8 tackles, 0.5 sack), with So. Raphael Guidry (18 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 FR) backing him up. Brown, a former JUCO TE, took over the starting job a month ago. He also has played on the end when the Wildcats have 3 down linemen. Sr. Daniel Calvin (25 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 PBU) starts at nose tackle, with Sr. Chidubaumu Abana (12 tackles, 0.5 sack) serving as his top back-up. Calvin, like many of the Wildcats, is a JUCO transfer. He is having a nice senior season, but recoded just a single tackle last week against Missouri. The interior linemen were pushed around often by the Missouri front five in the disappointing loss last week.
LB: Kansas State's linebacking corps is a fair group that plays hard but doesn't have great athleticism as a unit. As a whole, they play the run better than the pass, as the group struggles in pass coverage. Starting at middle linebacker is Sr. Ulla Pomele (40 tackles, 1 sacks, 1 FR), with So. Alex Hrebec (32 tackles, 1 PBU) backing him up. Pomele is a speedy linebacker that doesn't miss many tackles. Hrebec is also a sure tackler, but doesn't have the same quickness that Pomele has. At the outside linebacker spots are Sr. John Houlik (45 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU) and Jr. Troy Butler (44 tackles, 1 FR, 2 PBU). Houlik is not great in coverage, but does a nice job in tracking down the receiver after the catch. He's a hard hitter, but not terribly fast. Butler started 10 games this season, and plays in defensive backfield as well as at linebacker. He's the fastest of the group, a very good tackler, and has performed well overall since transferring from Junior College. Top reserves at outside linebacker include Jr. Kevin Rohleder (28 tackles), TFr. Thomas Ferguson (4 tackles), and Sr. Courtney Herndon (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU). Rohleder had a number of missed tackles last week on Missouri's receivers, as they slipped around him.
DB: The Wildcats' defensive backfield has been porous at best this season. They allowed Missouri to play some sandlot football last weekend, as QB Blaine Gabbert told WR Danario Alexander to "go long" as he racked up 200 yards and 3 touchdowns by himself. Starting at cornerback is Jr. Joshua Moore (57 tackles, 0.5 sack, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 10 PBU) at left corner and Jr. Stephen Harrison (20 tackles, 10 PBU) at right corner. Moore is the best of the group, and is tied for the team lead in passes broken up with Harrison. Moore has very good speed and is a pure cover-corner. He's a very good tackler, as he sticks to the ball carrier and doesn't let go. Harrison is an inconsistent corner that will make a few really nice plays on the ball, then get beat a few times. He had an opportunity to pick off a pass last week that could have helped turn the game, but dropped it. Players in the reserve rotation include TFr. Darious Thomas (11 tackles, 1 PBU) and So. David Garrett (29 tackles, 1 FF). Garrett missed a tackle late in the game last week that went for a big first down that helped Missouri on their final scoring drive. Starting at strong safety is So. Tysyn Hartman (53 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 6 PBU), with TFr. Torrell Miller (4 tackles, 1 INT) providing back-up. Hartman is typically pretty solid, but had all sorts of trouble last week against Missouri. He got beat in man coverage for a touchdown in the first half, then missed a tackle on a play that went for a touchdown in the second half. At free safety is So. Emmanuel Lamur (61 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 FR, 2 PBU, 2 BK), while Sr. Chris Carney (1 tackle, 1 PBU, 1 BK) and So. Logan Dold (6 tackles) share back-up duties. Lamur also had trouble defending the deep ball last week, but did lead the team in tackles with 10. He is a big body in the secondary at 6'4", and is making a name for himself with big plays despite being in his first season after transferring from junior college.
Kansas State Special Teams
Kansas State's special teams units have played pretty well this season. With one of the best returnmen in the game, every kickoff is a scoring opportunity for KSU. The Wildcats currently rank 73rd in net punting (35.12 yd avg), 6th in kickoff returns (26.94 yd avg), 47th in punt returns (10.13 yd avg), 40th in kickoff coverage (20.66 yd avg), and 21st in punt coverage (5.15 yd avg).
K: Jr. Josh Cherry has made 11 of his 17 field goal attempts with a long of 47 this season. He started the season out shaky, missing 5 of his first 6 attempts, but has turned things around in the second half of the season. Last week against Missouri, he was a perfect 4-for-4, with his longest being 47. Cherry also works as the kickoff specialist, pushing just 6 of his 56 kickoffs for a touchback this season. He averages 61.8 yards per kickoff, kicking to between the 8 and 9 yard line.
P: TFr. Ryan Doerr is averaging 41.2 yards on his 36 punts with a long of 53 this season. 13 of his 36 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20.
KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit for the Wildcats consists of Sr. Brandon Banks (36 kick returns, 29.9 yd avg, 4 TDs, 98 yd long) and Sr. Keithen Valentine (7 kick returns, 19.3 yd avg, 30 yd long). Banks is possibly the most dangerous return man in college football. His small stature (5'7" on a good day), serves him very well in the return game as he is able to easily slip tackles. The top punt return men are Sr. Brandon Banks (15 punt returns, 8.5 yd avg, 26 yd long) and So. Tysyn Hartman (8 punt returns, 13.1 yd avg, 24 yd long).
Coverage: The Wildcats' kick and punt coverage units have been pretty good this season. The kickoff return numbers look better than they really are when you consider the kick only makes it to about the 9 yard line. On the season, the kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 20.7 yards on 47 kickoff return attempts, with a long of 67. The punt coverage unit is allowing an average of just 5.2 yards on 13 punt return attempts, with a long of 26.
Nebraska's offense has struggled with consistency from drive-to-drive all season long. Last week against Kansas, the Husker offense showed some signs that they might be stirring from their long slumber, picking up 410 yards and 31 points. It was the first time against BCS competition this season that the Huskers gained more than 362 yards. Nebraska currently ranks 77th nationally in total offense (353.30 ypg), 82nd in passing (200.90 ypg), 68th in pass efficiency (127.51 rating), 57th in rushing (152.40 ypg), 68th in scoring offense (26.20 ppg), 37th in interceptions thrown (8), 80th in fumbles lost (10), and 56th in giveaways (18).
QB: Nebraska has changed back to starting Jr. Zac Lee (123 for 206, 1496 yds, 11 TDs, 6 INTs) at QB. Lee looked great against Nebraska's Sun Belt opposition this year, but has yet to have a breakout game against a member of a BCS conference. Last week was probably his best performance against a BCS foe, throwing for 196 yards (13 of 21) against Kansas. Those aren't jaw dropping numbers, but he didn't turn the ball over, which is a major plus. In most games this season, he has been hesitant to throw downfield, instead choosing to check down to much shorter routes. He doesn't have great pocket presence, and when pressured chooses to run to the perimeter instead of stepping up into the pocket. This has been an issue because he just isn't great throwing on the run. When Lee has been "on", he's shown great arm strength and accuracy, but he hasn't been "on" against any defense of note. He has decent speed and has rushed for 113 yards on 62 attempts (has lost 63 yards on sacks). TFr. Cody Green (33 for 59, 313 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) started at QB against Baylor and Oklahoma, but after getting pulled in the 2nd quarter of the Oklahoma game, has not played a snap. He didn't provide the spark many had hoped, but has a lot of potential to be a big-time dual-threat QB at some point down the road. He can run pretty well and has shown a very strong arm, but he just hasn't put it all together mentally yet. He has carried the ball 16 times for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns (lost 11 yards on sacks).
RB: Nebraska's running backs are led by Jr. Roy Helu Jr. (167 carries, 962 yds, 9 TDs). Helu Jr. has a great combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability. He can beat defenders by running around them, by them, and over them. He has really turned into a complete back over the past year. He has been bothered by an injured shoulder since the Missouri game, but is now looking like his old self. He picked up 141 yards on 20 carries against the stingy Sooner defense two weeks ago, and 156 yards on 28 carries last week against Kansas. The top back-up to Helu Jr. was TFr. Rex Burkhead (23 carries, 118 yds, 1 TD), an impressive young back that has had some nice rushes early this season. He broke his foot over a month ago and isn't expected to be back until the season finale against Colorado. However, there is a chance he could play this weekend. TFr. Dontrayevous Robinson (38 carries, 159 yds, 2 TDs) has separated himself from the rest of the backs and has commanded the #2 spot in the lineup. So. Marcus Mendoza (4 carries, 10 yds), So. Austin Jones (6 carries, 15 yds), RFr. Lester Ward (8 carries, 24 yds), and RFr. Collins Okafor (1 rush, 9 yds) are battling behind Robinson. Nebraska likes to throw the ball to their backs, with Helu Jr. (19 catches, 149 yds), Burkhead (8 catches, 66 yds, 1 TD), Mendoza (7 catches, 45 yds), Robinson (3 catches, 22 yds), and Jones (1 catch, 2 yds) each catching passes this season. Interestingly, none of the backs caught a pass last week. At fullback, RFr. Tyler Legate (2 catches, 14 yds, 1 TD) is the top guy and but doesn't really see much time on the field. When Nebraska has lined up in 2 back sets with Legate in as a lead blocker, the offense has moved the ball very well. Expect to see him more from this point forward.
WR/TE: Nebraska's receivers need to be more consistent if the passing game is going to be viable threat. There are too many instances of dropped passes and lackadaisical play at this late stage of the season. Starting at "Z" is Jr. Niles Paul (29 catches, 567 yds, 3 TDs). He has a great combination of size, quickness, and route running skills. He is very inconsistent, however, as it seems for every great catch he makes, he'll drop just as many easy ones. He had a great game last week, however, catching 4 passes for 154 yards. Starting at "X" is RFr. Khiry Cooper (12 catches, 72 yds, 1 TD). He's probably got the most up-side of Nebraska's receivers, and was thrust into the starting role four games ago. Reserves include Sr. Menelik Holt (15 catches, 175 yds, 1 TD), So. Curenski Gilleylen (16 catches, 299 yds, 1 TD), Sr. Chris Brooks (13 catches, 177 yds, 1 TD), Jr. Brandon Kinnie (8 catches, 71 yds), TFr. Antonio Bell (1 catch, 3 yds), Jr. Will Henry (1 catch, 1 yd), Sr. Wes Cammack (1 catch, 2 yds). Holt had been the starter at "X" for much of the year, however, dropped passes and poor blocking led to his demotion. Gilleylen is a speedster that developed into Nebraska most dangerous deep threat, but with Nebraska not going deep, he's been a non-factor. Brooks turned into a solid possession receiver this year and probably has the best hands of the entire group. Kinnie has great measurables and is starting to show that he can catch the ball. Henry is a big body (6'5") but is yet to make an impact. Nebraska's top TE is Jr. Mike McNeill (21 catches, 211 yds, 3 TDs), with So. Dreu Young (3 catches, 63 yds), So. Ryan Hill (2 catches, 8 yds, 1 TD), RFr. Ben Cotton (2 catches, 10 yds), and RFr. Kyler Reed (5 catches, 52 yds) competing behind McNeill. McNeill does a nice job of picking up yards after catch, as well as getting open in the endzone. This is a deep and talented group of tight ends, which are a big strength for the Huskers' offense, however, haven't been taken advantage of properly.
OL: Nebraska's offensive line continues to be far too inconsistent at this late stage of the year. At times they do a nice job, but more often than not they are committing costly penalties and getting beat by opposing linemen. Starting at tackle is Jr. Mike Smith (6'6", 295 lbs) on the left and So. Marcel Jones (6'7", 310 lbs) on the right. Smith is typically among the best linemen for the Huskers, but has had his share of issues as well this year. Jones is the largest of the linemen, and has potential to be a rock on the right side. However, he's young and has made a number of mistakes. Jr. D.J. Jones (6'5", 315 lbs) is listed as a co-starter with Marcel Jones, even though Marcel sees more snaps. D.J. doesn't have great torque in the hips and gets beat often by athletic linemen. TFr. Jeremiah Sirles (6'6", 310 lbs) is another possibility to see in a reserve role at tackle. Starting at left guard is Jr. Keith Williams (6'5", 315 lbs), while Jr. Ricky Henry (6'4", 300 lbs) starts at right guard. Williams is a pretty solid blocker, but still has a lot of room for improvement. He does very well as the pulling guard, plowing through his man and opening holes. Henry is a player known for his strength and his nasty streak, which has caused a few personal foul flags this year. Sr. Andy Christensen (6'3", 305 lbs) and Sr. Derek Meyer (6'5", 315 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard. Sr. Jacob Hickman (6'4", 290 lbs) starts at center, with So. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs) backing him up. Hickman is the leader of the group and a typically solid center. Caputo isn't a prototypically sized center, but he has very good technique and leverage.
Nebraska's defense has been very good this season, the best the Blackshirts have performed in about a decade. They had a difficult challenge last week against a Kansas team that finally had a healthy QB Todd Reesing. They gave up 335 yards, the most since the season opener (358) against Florida Atlantic. The Huskers are currently ranked 10th nationally in total defense (280.10 ypg), 26th in pass defense (185.20 ypg), 3rd in pass efficiency defense (91.24 rating), 11th in rush defense (94.90 ypg), 3rd in scoring defense (11 ppg), 28th in interceptions (12), 69th in fumbles recovered (7), and 44th in total takeaways (19).
DL: Nebraska's defensive line is possibly the best in the nation. They're big, strong, athletic, and make plays all over the field. Starting at defensive end is Jr. Pierre Allen (39 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 QBH, 3 PBU) on the right, with Sr. Barry Turner (36 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 9 QBH, 3 PBU) on the left. Both are very good athletes, but haven't played their best football this year. They're playing well, just not as well as expected. Their play has been helped by the excellent play on the inside as well this season. RFr. Cameron Meredith (16 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 2 QBH, 1 PBU) and RFr. Josh Williams (3 tackles) are the top reserves at defensive end. Meredith has been impressive in his back-up role, and is pushing for more playing time. Starting at nose tackle is Sr. Ndamukong Suh (56 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 19 QBH, 8 PBU, 3 BK), with So. Terrence Moore (2 tackles) backing him up. Suh is an elite defensive player that has a motor that doesn't quit, flies to the ball and forces turnovers. He very rarely comes off the field, yet still has the energy to bring it in the fourth quarter. He's likely to take home many post-season awards. So. Jared Crick (60 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 FR, 13 QBH, 3 PBU, 1 BLK) starts at defensive tackle, with RFr. Baker Steinkuhler (17 tackles) providing back-up. Crick has really turned into a big time d-tackle this season, making opponents think twice about always doubling up on Suh. He leads the team with 9 sacks.
LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps is young and has been playing very good football since the start of conference play. With two of the three starters being redshirt-freshmen, they continue to get better each week. Starting at weakside linebacker is Sr. Phillip Dillard (54 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 3 QBH, 1 PBU). Dillard is a former starter at MIKE that that has been doing a great job at WILL this year. He brings athleticism and experience to the field that has been invaluable. Behind Dillard is So. Matthew May (9 tackles). May has not seen much action this season. Starting at middle linebacker is RFr. Will Compton (31 tackles, 0.5 sack, 2 QBH, 1 PBU), while Sr. Colton Koehler (5 tackles) is the top reserve. Compton works hard to get after the ball carrier, but is still learning the defense and makes mistakes. Last week he made a mistake and took the wrong guy, allowing a QB keeper for a touchdown. Starting at buck linebacker is RFr. Sean Fisher (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 3 QBH), with TFr. Eric Martin (10 tackles, 1 BK) and RFr. Micah Kreikemeier providing back-up. Fisher stands at 6'6", and like Compton, will get better each week as they learn how to quickly read and react to the opposing offense. Martin is a special teams dynamo and has the ability to be a force for the Huskers at LB when he gets the mental aspect of the game down to match his physicality.
DB: Nebraska's defensive backfield has played very well this season, and kept up a high level of play no matter the competition. Other than a couple of big plays given up, they have done a nice job in coverage and making solid tackles. Jr. Prince Amukamara (47 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INTs, 1 FF, 10 PBU) starts at LCB, with Jr. Dejon Gomes (33 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 FF, 3 QBH, 4 PBU) and TFr. Andrew Green listed as the top reserves. Amukamara is a great athlete and has been solid in coverage this season. Gomes has looked very good when on the field, and has seen more time against the spread offenses this year. So. Alfonzo Dennard (27 tackles, 7 PBU) took over the role as starting RCB about a month ago and has performed very well. He's a physical corner that makes plays on the football and is a solid tackler. Jr. Anthony West (8 tackles, 3 PBU) backs up Dennard, but has only been average, and needs to play more with his head on a swivel. So. Lance Thorell (6 tackles, 1 PBU) is another reserve at corner that occasionally sees time. At strong safety is Sr. Larry Asante (54 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 7 PBU) starts, with Jr. Eric Hagg (31 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 3 QBH, 2 PBU) and RFr. P.J. Smith (11 tackles) backing him up. Asante has great athleticism and is a big hitter. He's probably the best of the defensive backfield, with Amukamara coming in a close second. Hagg is used often as a blitzing safety, and also as a nickel back. Sr. Matt O'Hanlon (50 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU) starts at free safety. O'Hanlon is often picked on and has been burned in the past, however, has made some big plays in his career as well. He is a dependable tackler and blitzes well. Behind O'Hanlon is Hagg, So. Austin Cassidy (8 tackles, 1 PBU), and RFr. Courtney Osborne (1 tackle).
Nebraska Special Teams
Nebraska's special teams units have been inconsistent this year. They have some of the best kickers in the nation, but the return and coverage units are hot and cold. Last week, Nebraska's kickoff return game was outstanding, averaging nearly 40 yards per return. The Huskers rank 100th in net punting (33.31 yd avg), 44th in kickoff returns (22.81 yd avg), 40th in punt returns (10.69 yd avg), 28th in kickoff coverage (20.06 yd avg), and 103rd in punt coverage (13.13 yd avg).
K: Jr. Alex Henery has one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the nation. He has made 15 of his 18 attempts this season, with a long of 46. He's made 28 of his last 29 kicks from under 50 yards. Jr. Adi Kunalic has a booming leg and is arguably the best kickoff specialist in the nation. Kunalic has pushed 23 of 56 kickoffs for touchback this season, with an excellent 68.4 yard average, kicking between the 1 and 2 yard line.
P: Jr. Alex Henery has averaged 41 yards on his 53 punts with a long of 76 this season. 20 of his 53 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20 so far this year. He added punting duties to his repertoire this season, and has been somewhat inconsistent when required to punt for length. When directional punting or attempting to get the ball downed inside the 10, he's been outstanding.
KR/PR: Nebraska's top kickoff return unit is made up of Jr. Niles Paul (13 kick returns, 25.7 yd avg, 44 yd long), and RFr. Tim Marlowe (8 kick returns, 24.2 yd avg, 40 yd long). At punt returner is Jr. Niles Paul (26 punt returns, 9.2 yd avg, 55 yd long). These units have been very good at times, but have been pretty average since starting conference play. As a team, Nebraska averaged 37.3 yards per kickoff return last week. Both Marlowe and Paul each had returns of 40 yards or more.
Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams have been pretty good this season, but are not immune from occasional tackling problems. They seem to allow about one good sized return each week. The kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 20.1 yards on 34 kickoff returns (76 yd long), while the punt coverage unit is allowing an average of 13.1 yards on 24 punt returns (62 yd long).
Kansas State's Offense vs. Nebraska's Defense
Kansas State's passing attack is led by QB Grant Gregory, and has been a decent this season. Gregory is pretty inconsistent, but has a good enough arm to keep defenses honest and not just key in on stopping the run. He's come a long way since his first start against Texas Tech earlier in the year both in his decision making and confidence. Last week against Missouri, Gregory was 21 of 30 for 239 yards and 1 interception. He's not typically going to throw that many passes, but he was forced to as the Wildcats had a large deficit in the 4th quarter to try and come back from. After playing in ten games, Gregory is completing 61.8% of his passes, while Nebraska's defense is allowing their opponents' quarterbacks to complete just 49.4% of their passes this season.
Gregory has a few serviceable targets to throw to, but the team's top threat, Brandon Banks, is much more dangerous in the return game than as a receiver. Still, Banks does a nice job of using his small size to find ways to get open. Attrail Snipes, Lamark Brown, and TE Jeron Mastrud round out the rest of the top guys in the unit. Snipes does a good job of getting open on the sideline, but drops a fair amount of passes, while Brown is a big target for the offense. He just isn't consistent enough though to top Snipes for a starting job. Mastrud is a quality tight end that sees a majority of his catches as a complement to a good day from the running game.
Nebraska's pass defense is among the best in the nation this season (185.20 ypg), which has been an outstanding turnaround from a season ago (233.4 ypg in 2008). The secondary has been excellent since getting the right combination of starters back there. There is a lot of quality depth within this group as well, and they have been rolling nickel and dime without having any weak link within the unit. There will likely be less dime utilized this week, since the Wildcats don't usually spread the field with multiple wide sets. Nebraska's defensive backfield does really well in coverage, however, does tend to give up one or two big plays every week. Last week there were some uncharacteristic missed tackles from this group that led to a couple of plays that went for more than they should have. It's likely that it was a one game anomaly, but we'll find out on Saturday. In pass coverage, the Huskers' secondary ranks 3rd nationally, allowing a rating of just 91.24, while Kansas State's Grant Gregory has a pass efficiency rating of 123.40 (not ranked nationally due to insufficient number of passes thrown per game).
Kansas State's ground game is the strength of the offense. The power running game the Wildcats employ does a good job of shortening games and putting points on the board. It's really a duo of QB Grant Gregory and RB Daniel Thomas. The pair has really done a great job in the Big XII this year of frustrating their opponents. Thomas is a complete back, with not only great speed, but with powerful, churning legs that grind out extra yards as well. Last week against Missouri's stout rush defense, they gained just 112 yards on 43 carries (2.6 ypc). This has to be a concern for Wildcats as they prepare for an even better defensive front and overall rush defense this week at Nebraska.
Nebraska's rush defense is among the best in the country, ranking 4th in the Big XII and 11th nationally (94.9 ypg against). The Huskers' front four has done a great job of shutting down opposing run games, as evidenced by the fact that NT Ndamukong Suh and DT Jared Crick lead the team in tackles. No opponent has had much consistent success throughout a game on the ground against the Husker defense, but Kansas had a pretty good first half last week. The Jayhawks ran their power back Toben Opurum right at Crick's side of the line, with a decent amount of success, until Opurum injured his ankle. Even with the success, KU rushed for only 99 yards, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Daniel Thomas is a much better back than Opurum, and the Wildcats will likely go after Crick on the ground as well. Since Nebraska will be playing more of their base 4-3 defense and nickel, they should be able to fill a LB in on that side to further help.
Looking at how these teams perform on third downs and red-zone opportunities, Kansas State has converted just 35.33% of their third downs (96th nationally), with a poor 76% red-zone scoring average (26 TDs, 8 FGs) (96th nationally). The Wildcats converted 43.75% (7 of 16) on 3rd downs last week against Missouri, and were 1 for 2 in red-zone chances (1 FG). Nebraska's defense is allowing their opponents to convert just 33.33% of their 3rd down attempts (16th nationally), and has allowed a solid 81% red-zone scoring percentage (8 TDs, 5 FGs) (51st nationally) this season. Against Kansas last week, the Huskers allowed the Jayhawks to convert on 37.5% of their 3rd downs (6 of 16) and they were 2 for 2 in the red zone (1 TD, 1 FG).
Up front, Kansas State's average offensive lineman is 6'5", 296 lbs, while Nebraska's average defensive lineman comes in at 6'4.5", 279 lbs. On the season, Kansas State is averaging 4.9 yards per carry (when taking sacks out) while Nebraska is giving up just 3.6 yards per carry (when taking sacks out). The Wildcats have allowed 62 tackles for loss and 22 sacks in their eleven games, while the Huskers have picked up 82 tackles for loss and 28 sacks in their ten games. Kansas State's offensive line has been inconsistent this season, looking very good at times this year, but very porous at other times. Last week against Missouri, they had difficulties keeping Missouri's front four from getting pressure on QB Grant Gregory. Missouri was only able to get a single sack, but in terms of disruption in the backfield, they were there often. Nebraska's defensive line is the best group that Kansas State has played, by far, and if they don't bring a better effort than they did against Missouri, it's going to be a difficult task to run their offense the way they want to run it. Nebraska's defensive front had their weakest performance of the season against Kansas, but still managed 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack within the unit. The Jayhawks were able to keep the ball carriers away from d-tackles Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick, holding them to their lowest combined output of the season, just 6 tackles and 2 hurries. Their lack of production could have been from playing a hard-fought battle against Oklahoma the week prior. Expect them to return to form this weekend.
Nebraska's Offense vs. Kansas State's Defense
Nebraska's offense, which has struggled to do much this season, looked like they might be figuring things out by going back to basics last week against Kansas. The Huskers utilized the fullback as a lead blocker and followed up with play action passes to get things going. After trying out freshman QB Cody Green for a couple of games, the Huskers went back to Zac Lee and he showed some confidence in his arm and legs last week not seen since games against Sun Belt foes early in the season. He wasn't perfect, but it was definitely the best performance by a Nebraska quarterback in many weeks. That's a great sign for Nebraska, as they get ready to play a Kansas State defense that among the worst in the Big XII. The Wildcats' defense has allowed their opponents to complete 58% of their passes this season, while Nebraska QB's Zac Lee and Cody Green have combined to complete 59.1% of their attempts on the year.
Nebraska's receivers have struggled this season, and even when QB play was decent enough, the wide outs were dropping passes. Things started looking brighter last week when WR Niles Paul stepped up in a big way by emerging as a competent downfield threat. While he didn't reach the endzone, he picked up 154 yards on 4 receptions. There's a lot of potential within the rest of this group, but they have yet to have someone other than Paul be a formidable threat week-to-week. The tight ends are a great asset this team, and are starting to be used more in the passing game. Mike McNeill caught 4 passes for 27 yards last week before going down with an injury to his ribs. He'll likely play on Saturday, however, there are a lot of quality tight ends behind him, should he not be 100%.
Kansas State's secondary has been much maligned this season, and has been torched in most games against competent passing attacks. The Wildcats are giving up 240.7 yards per game (10th in Big XII) through the air while allowing 24 touchdowns and picking up 12 interceptions. There are some pretty solid athletes in this group, but they are just inconsistent in coverage. Last week against Missouri, they were also missing tackles, which led to some long plays for the Tigers. Missouri threw for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns last week, and the Wildcats were unable to get an interception, even when one was placed right in the hands of corner Stephen Harrison. CB Joshua Moore is the best of this group and will match up against Nebraska's top receiver Niles Paul whenever possible. In pass coverage, the Wildcats' secondary ranks 75th nationally, allowing a rating of 131.84, while Nebraska's QB's rank 68th nationally in pass efficiency (127.51).
Nebraska's running game has found a fair amount of success the past two weeks against Oklahoma and Kansas. It's no coincidence that Roy Helu has been his healthiest since before starting conference play in this two game span. Helu rushed for 138 yards against Oklahoma two weeks ago and had 156 yards against Kansas last week. He's the team's top playmaker on offense and with him mostly healthy, it changes what the Nebraska offense can do in a big way. Of course, if the offensive line doesn't do an adequate job of blocking, Helu's skills are a moot point, and credit also needs to go to them for opening up some holes for him. Also deserving credit is FB Tyler Legate. When he's on the field and used as a lead blocker, the running game has been dynamic for the Huskers. With the success they've had with him on the field, you'd think he'll be spending more time out there. Also of interest this week for Nebraska's running game is that freshman back, Rex Burkhead, could factor back into the mix after missing multiple games with a broken foot. He was money in short yardage when he was healthy earlier in the season. This is definitely good news for the Nebraska offense.
Kansas State's rush defense has been pretty good this season, giving up an average of just 105.8 yards per game on the ground (6th in Big XII). Last week, however, Missouri was able to get things done on the ground in the second half. The Wildcats surrendered 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground to the Tigers. Kansas State had a lot of trouble in the second half with Missouri's misdirection plays, often over pursuing to the wrong side, or getting out of position where they could only get a finger or two on the Missouri ball carrier. One thing to remember is that Missouri's offensive line is not a great unit, so you have to wonder where the KSU defense is right now. They were unable to make a plays in the backfield, and this is against a Missouri running game that is 9th in the conference.
Focusing on third downs and red zone play, Nebraska is converting a mediocre 39.72% of their third downs (60th nationally), and scoring on an average of just 79% on red-zone opportunities (20 TDs, 10 FGs) (83rd nationally). The Huskers were 7 of 16 on 3rd downs (44%) and a perfect 4 for 4 in the red zone (2 TDs, 2 FGs) last week at Kansas. The Wildcats' defense is allowing their opponents to convert a fairly high 40.71% of their third downs (83rd nationally), and have allowed those opponents to score on 84% of their red-zone chances (21 TDs, 6 FG) (81st nationally). Kansas State allowed Missouri to convert 50% (5 of 10) of their 3rd downs and score on all 4 of their red-zone opportunities last week (3 TDs, 1 FG).
Sizing up the lines, Nebraska's average offensive lineman is 6'5", 300 lbs, while Kansas State's average defensive lineman is 6'3", 277 lbs. On the season, Nebraska is averaging 4.8 yards per carry (when taking sacks out) while Kansas State is giving up 4.4 yards per carry (when taking sacks out). Nebraska has allowed 13 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in ten games this year, while Kansas State has picked up 18 sacks and 52 tackles for loss in their eleven games this season. Nebraska's offensive line played one of their best games of the season last week against Kansas. They did a nice job opening some running lanes for RB Roy Helu as well as QB Zac Lee. Taking out the one sack Nebraska surrendered, the Huskers averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 40 rushes, an excellent day for a much maligned offensive line. Despite this success, the unit still commits far too many penalties and is still quite inconsistent. The Wildcats' defensive line isn't one of the bigger groups in the conference, and was pushed around by Missouri last week. The Tigers rushed for 135 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The unit has not done much tackling behind the line of scrimmage, and considering how Nebraska pushed around a bigger defensive front at Kansas last week, they'll have their hands full.
RBs: Nebraska +
WR/TE's: Nebraska +
OL: Nebraska +
DL: Nebraska +++
LB: Nebraska ++
DB: Nebraska +++
Special Teams: Nebraska +
Coaching: Nebraska +
+ = Slight
++ = Moderate
+++ = Large
DE - Brandon Harold - Knee - Out for Season
LB - Kadero Terrell - Leg - Out for Season
TE - Mike McNeill - Ribs - Probable
RB - Rex Burkhead - Foot - Probable
FS - Rickey Thenarse - Knee - Out for Season
CB - Jase Dean - Knee - Out for Season
QB - Kody Spano - Knee - Out for Season
LB - Blake Lawrence - Concussions - Ended Career
Keys to the Game
1.) Secondary Play Must Be Better - Nebraska might have rediscovered some offensive balance this past week, setting up some nice play action off the run. The defensive backfield has been terrible this year and was torched by MU WR Danario Alexander last week. Nebraska can do the same deep ball routine with their WR Niles Paul.
2.) Win Turnover Battle - The Wildcats have done well in games that the defense can force turnovers. They couldn't do it last week and suffered a loss.
3.) Finish Drives - There were plenty of opportunities to put up more points against Missouri, but the Wildcats couldn't do it. The Banks fumble across the plane into the endzone that went for a touchback, penalties that helped stall some good drives, and just poor execution in the redzone needs to be fixed. If there's an opportunity to get a touchdown this week, you can't blow it.
1.) Don't Turn the Ball Over - KSU gets a lot of turnovers, and no matter how good you might be, turnovers can be the equalizer and tipping point (see Iowa State game).
2.) Have the Better Running Game - Now that Roy Helu is mostly healthy, he's got to have another big day. Offensive line play will be huge. On the other side, Daniel Thomas has to be bottled up. He's the key to their offense. If he's allowed to get loose, it's going to put a lot of pressure on the Husker offense.
3.) Keep the Ball Away From Brandon Banks - Don't punt to him, kick away from him on kickoffs, or better yet push them for touchbacks. Every time he touches the ball in a return, he's a threat to score.
It might seem strange to most that here we are in mid-November and the game to decide the North division of the Big XII conference is going to be Kansas State vs. Nebraska. Yes, Nebraska was expected to be in position to win the North, but Kansas State was barely a blip on the radar. Certainly, at the beginning of the season, not many would have thought it was possible for Bill Snyder to have his Wildcats in this position. However, with the sinking of teams like Kansas and Missouri, Kansas State has been opportunistic this season and finds themselves in a strange scenario. A win and you go to the Big XII championship game and a bowl game following that. A loss means you finish with a 6-6 record, and with two wins coming against FCS foes, that isn't enough to get to a bowl game. Talk about a make or break situation, this is definitely one.
Nebraska has plenty on their plate as they enter this game as well. It's senior day for 13 Huskers, and if they fail to win this game, the season will likely be seen as a failure. Nebraska finished with a tie for the North last year with Missouri, but because Missouri beat Nebraska head-to-head, the Tigers went to the conference title game. This is a must-win game for Nebraska and second-year coach Bo Pelini.
The Wildcats have gotten to where they are right now behind a power running game on offense and overachieving, hard-nosed play on defense. There's little flash to what they do on either side of the ball, and they've helped themselves greatly by forcing turnovers on defense. They were unable to force any turnovers while giving the ball away 3 times. This was a game played in the friendly confines of Manhattan, and now they'll have to regroup under the lights in front of 86,000 plus fans wearing red.
Nebraska looked like they are starting to get it figured out on offense last week against Kansas, running and throwing the ball effectively. It was their first 400+ yard performance since playing Louisiana-Lafayette very early in the season. RB Roy Helu has started getting things going again, and another rushing threat, Rex Burkhead is back. After a hard-fought, physically demanding game against Oklahoma two weeks ago, the Husker defense had a slight hangover against a Kansas team that finally had their QB Todd Reesing at full speed after recovering from a groin injury. Look for the Nebraska defense to return to form this week and make things tough for Kansas State.
This will be a good battle for a while, with both teams needing to win this game badly. At the end of the day, though, Nebraska is a better, deeper team and playing in Lincoln at night is a big advantage. Nebraska by about 14-20.
Kansas State - 10
Nebraska - 28