Of course, this year, Kansas won’t start with just any opponent. Instead, it’s the Sunflower State showdown, and a chance for the Jayhawks to prove their mettle against the Kansas State Wildcats (3-1 1-0).
The Wildcats just finished feasting as well, but instead of cupcakes, K-State went out and killed and grilled a side of beef, sirloin-style, traveling into the house of the Texas Longhorns and coming out with a convincing 41-21 victory on national television.
That victory means that the only thing keeping both K-State and Kansas from entering Saturday’s game undefeated is a fourth-quarter meltdown at Auburn. The Wildcats have done it in typical 1990s style, utilizing an opportunistic offense, a fast, aggressive defense and a knack for the big play on special teams.
On offense, it all starts with Josh Freeman (6-foot-6 250 pounds), who has completed nearly 62 percent of his passes for 1004 yards. But Freeman’s completions have mostly been dinking and dunking … he is averaging just 9.6 yards per completion, or less than six yards per attempt, and many of those yards have come after the catch. He has also thrown four interceptions to three touchdowns, but all four of those interceptions came in the first two games of the year.
The main beneficiary of the quick-hit attack has been Jordy Nelson (6-3 217), who has 42 catches for 497 yards and two touchdowns. Nelson’s receptions put him second in the country, and his yardage is good for fifth. He’s big, strong, and runs sub 4.4 seconds, which makes him a danger in the open field. So is Deon Murphy (5-10 170), a JUCO transfer who has been clocked in the 4.36 seconds (in the 40) range. Murphy has 17 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown on the year. When the Wildcats look for a third receiver, it’s typically tight end Jeron Mastrud (6-6 259), who has 10 catches for 101 yards. K-State also plays a lot of two tight end sets, with Michael Pooschke (6-2 247) serving as the second tight end.
When the Wildcats run the ball, they’ve got a nice option in James Johnson (5-11 200), a slashing runner who has great speed, versatility and vision. Johnson has 305 yards rushing and five touchdowns this year, along with another 16 catches for 84 yards receiving. Leon Patton (5-7 187) adds quickness, and is coming off a big freshman year. Patton is off to a slow start this season though, rushing for 61 yards on 24 carries.
With the quick-passing attack, Kansas State hasn’t asked its linemen to do much so far this year, though they have performed well, helping the offense to average 4.3 yards per carry in the running game and allowing just three sacks. The line is anchored by center Jordan Bedore (6-3 308), with Brock Unruh (6-5 301) and Gerald Spexarth (6-6 280) at the guard spots. Alesana Alesana (6-3 299) is the left tackle, while Penisini Liu (6-5 308) took the starting job from Nick Stringer (6-6 270) at right tackle two games ago, and hasn’t given it back.
But it’s defensively where the Wildcats have truly shined. Kansas State switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the off season to get more speed on the field. The result has been almost a 5-2 look, with the defensive ends standing over the corners of the line. The Wildcats mix their blitzes well, though they almost always send multiple players, whether they be linebackers or defensive backs. It has worked swimmingly -- K-State has collected 15 sacks by nine different players, with 22 different players collecting a tackle for loss. They’ve also created 21 hurries, and have knocked at least one quarterback out of the game, at least temporarily, in every game this year. That pressure also led to four interceptions at Texas.
Like a good curveball, the key is rotation, rotation, rotation. The Wildcats play at least two-deep at every position in the front seven to keep fresh legs, and speed, in good supply. The defensive line has benefited from the new system. Defensive tackle Steven Cline and defensive end Rob Jackson find themselves among the team leaders in sacks with 2.5 and two sacks respectively. Meanwhile, Moses Manu (6-2 260), at the other defensive end spot, tipped two passes that led to interceptions last week. Jackson also leads the team in tackles for loss with four.
Linebacker has been another strong suit. Though the Wildcats lost ace blitzer Antwon Moore to injury, the unit was deep enough to fill the void with small, speedy ‘backers who run like defensive backs. Junior Ian Campbell (6-4 249) has been up-and-down as an outside linebacker, but he’ll also occasionally line up at end. He has 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks after four games, a year after he had 17.5 and 11.5. Campbell returned an interception for a touchdown last week. Justin Roland (6-0 245) and Reggie Walker (6-1 231) man the middle, and have 25 and 18 tackles respectively. Eric Childs starts at the other outside linebacker spot. Keep an eye out for key reserves Chris Patterson (6-2 206), John Houlik (5-11 217), and Ross Diehl (6-2 215) as well. Houlik has 19 tackles, while Diehl has 2.5 sacks.
Justin McKinney (5-9 191) and Byron Garvin (5-9 191) are sure tackling cornerbacks. McKinney leads the team with 27 tackles, while Garvin is also effective on the blitz, coming up with 1.5 sacks. Ray Cheatham (6-0 190) brings much-needed size. Marcus “5,000” Watts (6-1 189) heads the secondary with athleticism, hitting ability and intelligence, but he missed the Texas game with an injury. He should be ready to play Saturday. If he isn’t, expect to see Chris Carney (6-1 190), who has started two games this year. Gary Chandler (5-11 190) is the starter at strong safety.
Kansas State has also made its mark on special teams, returning one kickoff and two punts for touchdowns. It doesn’t seem to matter who K-State puts back there -- Nelson, Johnson and Murphy have all scored on returns this year, while McKinney also has return potential. Ohio transfer Brooks Rossman (6-0 178) and punter Tim Reyer (5-11 201) are both among the conference’s best at their positions.
The game is important for both sides. If Kansas State wins, it will start the Big 12 season 2-0, and be in a lead position for the North crown. If Kansas wins, it means the Jayhawks could be 2-0 heading into Boulder in two weeks, and Kansas will have beaten K-State three of the last four years, marking a major momentum shift in the rivalry.
Perhaps most importantly for the winner, it will be the best meal they’ve eaten so far in the young 2007 season.