KU vs. KSU: The Matchups

For the first time in a while, Kansas Coach Mark Mangino referred to the Kansas State Wildcats as a rival this year.

After last year’s game, and the one before it, Mark Mangino was quick to point out that Missouri, not Kansas State was Kansas’s rival. Why the change? Who knows, but from the amount of talking going on from the Kansas State side, there isn’t any doubt that both squads will be up for this one.

And they should be. It’s a game that both teams, if they play well, should have a chance to win. Last year’s version saw the Wildcats jump out to a fast start in Manhattan before Kansas came back for a 30-24 victory. It was one of the launching steps for the Jayhawks toward a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory, and this year’s game shouldn’t be any less important, with both teams hoping to position themselves for a solid bowl game.

So without further ado, here are the matchups for the 106th Sunflower Showdown:

1)    Jake Sharp versus the Kansas State linebackers
Sharp has shown serious improvement this year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in Big 12 play. That’s bad news for a K-State team that allows 200 yards per game on the ground. Kansas State’s linebackers have made a habit at times at getting out of position, which could kill them against Sharp, who has the speed to make their mistakes count on the scoreboard. Establishing Sharp should be a large part of the gameplan – it should help to relieve pressure on quarterback Todd Reesing, who has seemed a bit tight at times the last two weeks. But the K-State linebackers won’t just have to play well against Sharp, Jocques Crawford and Angus Quigley in the passing game. In order to slow down K-State’s blitzing, Kansas will likely run shovel passes or other dumpoffs in order to catch the linebackers overpursuing. If they come upfield too quickly, which they’ll have to do to get to Reesing, Sharp could be due for a huge day on counters and draws as well.

2)    Kansas defensive backs versus the Kansas State receivers
The Jayhawks have struggled so much against the pass that they’re actually allowing more yards per game than the much-maligned 2006 season. Kansas made several changes before the Texas Tech game, including moving safety Justin Thornton and receiver Daymond Patterson to cornerback, while moving Chris Harris to safety. While it didn’t yield immediate results, the hope is that Thornton, a big, smooth-hipped athlete, Patterson, a player with big-time speed, and Harris, a good all-around athlete, will be able to add stability to the unit. Also look for freshman Corrigan Powell to play a lot, while Kendrick Harper, a usual starter, will be rotated in. They’ll face another challenge this week in a K-State squad that boasts solid receivers in four spots. The best of the bunch is Brandon Banks, a playmaker who averages more than 20 yards per catch. Deon Murphy is another receiver with deep speed, while Aubrey Quarles and Ernie Pierce can hurt a defense that ignores them.

3)    Kansas receivers versus the Kansas State defensive backs
At the same time, the passing game on the other side may be even more of a mismatch. Kansas boasts two of the top 10 receivers in the conference in Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier, two players likely to take advantage of mismatches this week. Jon Wilson and Dexton Fields are also possibilities for big weeks. Kansas State’s safeties are among the worst in the conference against the pass, and they’ll be forced to cover Meier and Fields in space. It’s not a much better matchup for Kansas State with cornerbacks Joshua Moore and Blair Irvin playing against Briscoe and Wilson. Moore is a solid player, but he gives up inside position too easily, something that Briscoe, a monster on slant and crossing routes, could seriously hurt him on. Wilson will also have a chance for a big play working against Irvin, who has given up plenty of them.

4)    Kansas defensive ends versus Edward Prince, Alesana Alesana and Nick Stringer, offensive tackles
Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman may be the streakiest passer in the conference. He’s capable of completing 10 straight passes, then completing two passes over his next 10. The key to rattling him is consistent pressure, something the Wildcats allow at times. While he isn’t sacked often, it’s not difficult to pressure Freeman into mistakes and he doesn’t throw well on the run. Kansas hasn’t done well at supplying consistent pressure off the edges, and the Jayhawks have just 15 sacks in eight games so far, but this is an offensive line that the Kansas defensive line should be able to beat. The efforts of Laptad, Brorsen, Larson and Onyegbule will be even more important this week with Richard Johnson Jr., Kansas’s best interior pass rusher, likely out with injury.

5)    Special teams
If there’s any matchup that stands out in Kansas State’s favor, it’s on special teams, where the Wildcats have proven adept at pulling key scores. They’ve scored five times on punts this year, be it from blocks or from a Murphy punt return. Murphy is also one of the most dangerous kick returners in the conference, while Kansas has struggled with coverage. The Jayhawks have done better since changing personnel two games ago, but they’ll have to really be on their game to not lose this matchup to a superior special teams unit. It may be clichéd, but in a close game, field position and special teams can make the difference. Even if the other two units aren’t that close, special teams could make up for other deficiencies in the K-State lineup and keep it close.

With the struggles both teams have seen on the defensive side of the ball, this is a game that is likely to be a high scoring affair. Still, like last year’s game that featured two great offenses, don’t be surprised if it’s played in the mid-to-high 20s or low 30s. Often in rivalry games, teams will come out tight, and it takes a little while for them to find their groove.

Kansas has more weapons than Kansas State, and the Jayhawks have the tools to take advantage of K-State’s defensive weaknesses. This game will likely be close throughout, but the Jayhawks will pull away at the end.

Kansas 38
Kansas State 28

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