Big Game in Manhattan

A lot is riding on the game in Manhattan on Saturday. Momentum, bragging rights and recruiting hang in the balance. A gameday preview inside.

31-28.

The victory validated the Kansas football program in the eyes of many, showing improvement and breaking an 11-year Kansas State winning streak where the Wildcat wins seemed just as automatic as breathing. The average margin of victory was in the 30-point range. That loss for the Wildcats blended with more in the following weeks where the ‘Cats rolled up their worst record in more than a decade at 4-7. Kansas finished with an identical 4-7 record.

But that was last year. This year, both teams bring improved ballclubs to Wagner Field at KSU Stadium just one win away from tying last year’s total five games in. The Wildcats (3-1) have a renewed sense of rivalry in what had been a relationship based on blowouts. But there’s more incentive for Kansas State than simply evening out the score.

The Jayhawks (3-1) used the momentum from the victory over the Wildcats to grab four of the state’s top six recruits, with the Wildcats only getting one. To make matters even more tense, Kansas finally snaked through the purple haze that surrounded Garden City Community College to snag two top-notch defensive line prospects in Rodney Allen and Wayne Wilder.

Whoever wins the game will have a leg up when it comes to recruiting, as both schools battle over numerous prospects, in-state and out.

“The game has probably taken on far more significance in the last couple years than it has in the past perhaps for both programs,” said K-State coach Bill Snyder. “I think the loss last year certainly accelerates the enthusiasm for this football game. It’s obviously very meaningful to the young people from the state of Kansas.”

The Wildcats would love nothing more than to blast the Jayhawks out of the stadium with its pounding, ball-control attack. Led by junior Florida State transfer Thomas Clayton, the Kansas State rushing attack is among the conference’s best, and the Wildcats rank second in the Big 12 in time of possession.

Clayton, who leads the Big 12 in rushing at 112 yards per game, blends bruising power to surprising speed from his 210-pound frame. Often compared to another slashing running back, Josh Scobey, Clayton’s the type that can wear down a defense, while at the same time, his 80-yard touchdown run earlier this year showed that he’s not simply a plodder.

The Wildcats also don’t lose much when Clayton’s out of the ballgame. Parrish Fisher, a stud runner out of Texas, brings quickness and cutting ability. Against North Texas, a game that Clayton missed for disciplinary reasons, Fisher put up Clayton-like numbers.

But Clayton was shut down last week against Oklahoma, the first defense the Wildcats faced with a pulse, and Fisher didn’t get enough carries to establish himself. Snyder said that the race has tightened considerably. Kansas will be the second such defense, entering the game with the nation’s fifth ranked rushing defense, just seven yards per game behind the Sooners.

“I feel like I let the team down,” Clayton said. “I feel like, as a playmaker, I should make plays. Though there were times where I was hit in the backfield and there wasn’t really anything I could do, there were opportunities that I did have that I didn’t make the best of.”

On the flip side, this will be the first real rushing test the Jayhawks will face as well.

The key for K-State’s offensive hopes will rely on finding a quarterback to stop the Kansas defense from sagging into the box, a strategy that worked against K-State when utilized by both Marshall and Oklahoma. Alan Webb has been the starter all season, and he hasn’t performed poorly, but has yet to make teams fear his passing abilities. Webb averages 180 yards passing per game, a number slightly skewed by his North Texas performance in a blowout. He’s thrown an interception in each of the Wildcats’ first four games, but has also thrown eight touchdowns.

If Webb struggles, the Wildcats have hope in hotshot recruit Allan Evridge, who has been compared to former standout Ell Roberson. Evridge gave K-State a spark off the bench last week, completing three of six passes and leading the Wildcats to a score. He won’t start, but don’t expect Webb to have a long leash.

Whoever does win the job will have multiple talented targets to spread the ball to in Jermaine Moreira, Yamon Figurs and Jordy Nelson. Nelson, who combines great size with speed, may be the best of the bunch and is fifth in the conference in receiving yards, also adding four touchdowns.

But the running game and the passing game can only go as far as a patchwork offensive line will take it. The Wildcats have been devastated by inexperience and injuries, but may be getting two linemen, who are listed as questionable, back this week. The line was exposed against Oklahoma when it couldn’t handle blitzes, didn’t create holes and had K-State’s quarterbacks running for their lives. The line has allowed 10 sacks already this season, second worst in the conference only to Iowa State.

“What went right is that we got some experience on the road against 80,000-plus fans,” said Jeromey Clary, K-State offensive tackle. “We didn’t handle it well, so that’s the negative of it, but we got that experience under the young kids’ belts.”

Things aren’t rosy on the line on the other side of the ball either. The K-State defensive line struggled against Oklahoma’s rushing attack and has only generated five sacks on the year, worst in the conference. On the flip side, Kansas reserve linebacker Brandon Perkins had five sacks in one game. This is a unit that has to improve for the Wildcats to be successful on defense.

The back seven has been effective for the Wildcats this season, led by Justin McKinney, who has two interceptions and two forced fumbles of the year. The defensive backs were made stronger by the emergence of safety Marcus Watts, who brings a physical presence to the secondary.

The linebackers are led for the second consecutive year by Brandon Archer, who leads the team in tackles, but Ted Sims has yet to come around, leading to a position battle with Zach Diles, who brings more athleticism to the postion. Maurice Mack, a former Olathe North standout, has been a bright spot with his quickness and instincts.

But while the defense has been salty, it has been compromised on a number of occasions because K-State has one of the worst special teams units in the conference. Operating on a short field, offenses have put up enough points to make the defense 10th in the conference in scoring, even though it ranks third in total yardage. The team ranks last in kickoff coverage, 11th in punting and lacks strong return units, although Moreira has taken a punt back for a score this season.

“Yes there is concern,” Snyder said. “A lot of things that happened were out of character with our special teams so its not as though were going to run around and change a bunch of personnel. Nevertheless, we have to line up and play smarter than what we did.”

Part of the scoring problem is also an offense that ranks next to last in the conference in turnover margin. The matchup may be the most even in terms of talent that is has ever been, and will be a must see for anyone who lives in the state. Kickoff is at 11, and the Governor’s Cup, and possibly future stars await.

“It means a lot, it’s just one of those games where you just want to go out there and play,” said Maurice Mack, K-State linebacker. “It’s just makes it better that it’s KU and K-State. State-wide it’s a big, big game for a lot of people. Hopefully we won’t have the same thing that happened last year. Emotions are going to be flying; everyone’s going to be pumped and ready to go.

“It’s going to be a good game Saturday.”


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