Different because I believe that, talent wise, these two teams are equal. That’s a major change from just five years ago, when the Wildcats blanked Kansas 64-0, and probably could have beaten the Jayhawks with their second teamers.
However, talent hasn’t been the major indicator the last few years. What has? Homefield advantage. I thought that the Wildcats were the better team in 2004, but the Jayhawks, playing in a packed and rocking Memorial Stadium, came home with the win. Kansas was more talented in 2005, but in Manhattan, on Harley Day, the Jayhawks sputtered offensively, giving away some major chances, and losing 12-3.
They seemed to be on equal footing last year, but again, Kansas, playing to the home crowd, came out with a 39-20 victory that could well have been much worse, if not for a few costly red zone turnovers and a blatant non-called block-in-the-back at the point of attack on James Johnson’s kick return for a touchdown. At the same time, Josh Freeman would love to have any of his six turnovers back.
All of which brings us to this season, when the Jayhawks travel to Manhattan, where they haven’t scored a touchdown in years, and haven’t won since Abe Lincoln was president. Okay, so it only seems that long. History would tell you that K-State will come out a winner.
Ah-ha, but then there’s the matchups:
1) Todd Reesing, quarterback, versus the blitz
One of the great things about the new offense is that Reesing won’t have to be the one making the calls on who to watch out for before the snap. After the snap, it’s an entirely different situation. Kansas State will send many blitz looks, disguise coverages and send 17 players, a couple of them wielding kitchen sinks, after him on certain plays. Kansas will spread the field to make Kansas State cover more ground, and will throw quickly either out to the flat or on the slant to get the ball to Jayhawk receivers quickly. The strategy worked on a limited basis for San Jose State. Don’t be surprised to see Reesing run some option or roll the pocket as well, getting to the outside, away from the chaos to make plays. Reesing needs to make quick decisions, and he needs to make the right ones. If Kansas can spread the field enough to take some of the pressure off, and Reesing can get time to throw the ball, it could be, in the words of Lee Corso, ‘good night sweetheart.’ If not, then it could be a long, long day for number five.
2) Aqib Talib, cornerback, versus Jordy Nelson, wide receiver
One of the nation’s top receivers right now, Nelson ranks among the top five in both receptions and receiving yards. He’s made a lot of that after the catch, taking quick slants, hitches or screens and cutting up-field for big yardage. If there’s any defensive back in the country to match up with Nelson, it’s Talib, who is similarly big and fast. K-State will try to get the ball into Nelson’s hands in a variety of ways, so on some plays, Talib will have to give up the catch, but make the sure tackle to eliminate the YAC yardage Nelson typically gets. On others though, Talib may get a chance to break on a quick route and make a big play. At the same time, Talib will have to watch out, because I’m pretty sure K-State has an out-and-up in the playbook specifically designed to deal with overaggressive cornerbacks. Talib likely won’t be on Nelson all day, so it’s important for Chris Harris, a sure tackler himself, to be careful as well.
Whereas Talib and Nelson are both similarly talented, this one is a matchup of a 6-foot-4 wide receiver against a 5-9 cornerback. Kansas State’s defensive backs are going to have their hands full. Not only are they going to have to deal with talented receivers like Henry, Dexton Fields and Dezmon Briscoe, but they’ll also have to be ready for about 80 different looks from KU’s multiple-receiver sets, including some that might put Talib and backup quarterback Kerry Meier at receiver for a little while, meaning that the Jayhawks will likely be playing five wideouts, with four of them standing at least 6-2. To counter, K-State has just one cornerback who sees time that stands at 6-0. McKinney leads Kansas State in tackles, and he does a good job of preventing the big play. He’ll be up against Henry, KU’s playmaker at wide receiver, who averages more than 18 yards per catch. Kansas likes to throw the ball up and let the athletic Henry go up and get it, where his leaping ability and long arms can cause problems. At the same time, if McKinney misses a tackle, Henry, who ran a 4.39 in the summer, has the speed to take it all the way.
Lost in last year’s game, with the dominating performances by Jon Cornish, who ran for 200 yards, and Anthony Collins, who treated Ian Campbell like a parent paddling his toddler, was the play of McClinton. The 6-0 280-pound senior had five tackles for loss and two sacks in last year’s game, and forced a Freeman fumble that was recovered for a touchdown. Most importantly, he lived in the backfield, play after play, getting up field with uncanny speed and low pad level. That allowed the players around him to make plays as well -- Russell Brorsen picked up 10 tackles, including three for loss, two sacks and two recovered fumbles thanks, in part, to the attention McClinton demanded. It also meant that Josh Freeman never got comfortable in the pocket. Bedore is the anchor of the line, but he played in last year’s game as well, and had no effect on slowing down McClinton. Neither guard started that game, but both are taller players who may struggle to get off the ball low enough, and quick enough, to keep McClinton from creating havoc.
Both coaches will have plenty up their sleeves, which means the coach who adapts the best may be the one that comes home with the victory. Prince had his team prepared, following a bye week, to go to Austin and leave with a win. Now, Mangino faces a similar situation. What’s the difference? The scheduling. K-State had a season-opening trip to Auburn that prepared the Wildcats to play in a hostile environment on the road. Kansas didn’t have that luxury. At the same time, the Jayhawks’ four scrimmages made it so that they didn’t have to show many tricks. Normally, a coach coming off a bye week comes out with a bag chock full o’ tricks. In Kansas’s case, it may be an extra large bag. This game may be decided on who rolls with the punches and comes up with the strongest counter punch. If Kansas gives K-State’s blitz trouble by rolling Reesing out or by dissecting the defense by spreading the field, how long does it take K-State to change up? At the same time, if Nelson gives Kansas defensive backs trouble, or if the blitz is getting to Reesing, how long will it be before Kansas adapts?
I expect there to be ebb and flow in this game. I think Reesing’s accuracy will prove successful against the blitz, and KU will move the ball. At the same time, Nelson and Deon Murphy will make some big plays in the passing game for Kansas State. It’s a close, one-score game, and Kansas State will have the ball last, but Talib will do what he does best -- make a play. He steps in front of a quick route and takes it all the way back for the game-sealing score.
Kansas State 17