For Auburn it’s all about getting the ground game rolling behind a veteran offensive line under the guidance of quarterback Nick Marshall. Averaging 330 rushing yards per game with nine touchdowns, the Tigers have picked up where they left off last season on the ground.
The leader of the group is Cameron Artis-Payne with 289 yards and four touchdowns, but Corey Grant is also capable of doing damage as is Marshall. The two have a combined 298 yards and three touchdowns between them.
It’s not just on the ground where the Tigers are dangerous, however, as Marshall and Jeremy Johnson can hurt a defense through the air as well. A senior Marshall has completed 14-25 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown this season while Johnson has thrown for 277 yards and two scores with a 75 percent completion percentage. With a wealth of talent to throw to including Duke Williams (13 catches for 214 yards and one touchdown) and with Sammie Coates back healthy, K-State Coach Bill Snyder said it’s a tough matchup for his defense.
“It's kind of like throwing at a dart board,” Snyder said. “Probably just being in the right place at the right time, being assignment sound and execution of what you do defensively. Then having the reaction time to compensate for the quickness they have.
"Well, it is difficult because we don't have the personnel to work against that emulate the speed, quickness, strength and size that they present. What stands out is tremendous personnel. (Cameron) Artis-Payne has really stepped up and they're not going to take a step backward at the running back position. (Nick) Marshall is just as good as he was last year.
“He's gotten invested in his improvement and he's an extremely talented young guy who is I'm sure more relaxed in the system just because he's been around it a little bit longer. They have got good size and range at wide receiver positions and guys who can go up and make the difficult catches. They have a big, physical offensive line. I don't know. Take your pick."
Kansas State counters with a defense that is allowing 22 points and 87 yards rushing per game. The leader of the group is defensive end Ryan Mueller (6-2, 245, Sr.) with seven tackles, half a sack, and three tackles for losses. Freshman Elijah Lee (6-2, 214) leads the team with two and a half sacks to provide more pressure from his linebacker position, but there is no doubt Mueller is the leader of the group and has the attention of the Tigers. Linebacker Jonathan Truman (5-11, 219, Sr.) leads the team with 15 tackles.
“He plays as hard as anybody I have ever seen,” Auburn Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Mueller. “He is very active, very smart. He is tough to block one-on-one. He just has a great motor. There are sometimes he will either be out of position or miss a play in the backfield, and before you know it he’s tracking the guy down on the other side of the field for a minimal gain. He has an unbelievable motor to never give up on a play. We have to know where he is at at all times because he is very disruptive.”
An aggressive defense, Kansas State already has 13 tackles for losses in two games after totaling 71 stops behind the line a year ago. A big key for the Tigers to stay out of second or third and long situations on Thursday night. If Auburn can get the running game going early so they will have a chance to bury a defense that averages just 268 pounds on the line and has just one linebacker over 220 pounds, (Will Davis at 6-0, 223).
When Kansas State Has The Ball
The key for the Wildcats is talented senior quarterback Jake Waters. Averaging 231 yards per game through the air and completing 61.4 percent of his passes, Waters has thrown for just two touchdowns with one interception, but that’s just the start of what he does for the Kansas State offense. Carrying the ball 37 times, 16 more than second-leading rusher Charles Jones, Waters has 193 yards on the ground with four touchdowns as well. Snyder said the offense definitely starts with his senior leader.
"He's a young guy that went through some growing pains at the outset of last season, being new into the system and not having very many repetitions in his corner, and he got better as we went along, got better over the season, got better during the spring, and has continually invested in his improvement,” Snyder said. “He's made that and will continue to make that. It becomes a little more difficult when you line up against an opponent like Auburn.
“By the same token, he's invested in it and he feels more comfortable in the system because of the amount of experience and repetition that he's had in it. As far as whether he slides or not, he's a smart player and he makes the right decisions in regards to that. It's not something that we impose upon him, but when you can get extra yards, you want to get extra yards, and when it's smart to avoid the excessive contact then he is smart enough to do that, too."
When Waters isn’t running the football he’s usually throwing it to the dangerous Tyler Lockett. One of the most explosive players in the country, Lockett has seven catches for 145 yards and one touchdown this season, but his numbers go much deeper than that when you look at his relationship with Waters. Since the start of last season, when Waters took over as the starter coming out of junior college, the duo have combined to hook up 80 times for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns. Auburn must be aware of Lockett at all times and be aware of the big play possibility.
“He’s a really good player,” Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “And he's on both sides. You can't always match up on him with who you want, and you can't necessarily put a designed defense on him. You start double-covering him and that leaves all those quarterback lead runs open. That is what is such a big challenge with him. They are going to run the quarterback with the lead blocker, and when they do that base defenses don't have enough people on that chalkboard to make the plays."
Up front the Wildcats have three players who have combined for 76 career starts. That includes center B.J. Finney, who has started 41 consecutive games with the last 40 coming in the middle of the line for Kansas State. He is a three-time candidate for the Rimington Award, named for the nation’s top center, and is also up for the Rotary Lombardi Award along with left tackle Cody Whitehair.
Auburn’s defense will counter with a front seven that has responded well against the run since the first half of the Arkansas game. Allowing just 67 total rushing yards in the last six quarters, the Tigers should get a boost when Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams move inside full-time this week.
Montravius Adams is one of the players who must come up big for the Tigers on defense
While both could still see action at defensive end, they have been more active inside and that’s important when facing a quarterback with running ability like Waters. The key for the Tigers may be the play of linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost as well as ‘star’ players Robenson Therezie and Justin Garrett. They will likely have the duty of spying Waters and must be up to the task if Auburn’s defense hopes to slow down the Wildcats.
In the secondary Auburn must avoid giving up the big play, which won’t be easy with Lockett on the field. In the last 15 games he has 11 receptions of 20 or more yards and seven of more than 40 yards. Last season his 10 touchdowns averaged 40 yards per play, including a 90-yarder against Oklahoma. Lockett is fourth in school history with 150 receptions, fifth in yards with 2,340, and fourth in touchdowns with 19. His father Kevin Lockett holds the school records in all three categories.