'Hawks & 'Cats Go At It

Heading into last year's game, the Kansas State Wildcats were the favored squad.

And why wouldn’t they have been? The ranked Wildcats were fresh off a big victory in Austin, while Kansas was fresh off a blowout victory over Florida International. But the Jayhawks played the spoilers, leaving Manhattan with a 30-24 victory and their first road win of the season. Along the way, the Jayhawks exposed what previously had been a solid defense and set K-State rolling down the path to a losing season.

But every year is different, and Kansas State Coach Ron Prince has the Wildcats aligned within striking distance of a bowl berth.

On offense, the Wildcats are led by junior quarterback Josh Freeman (6-foot-6 250 pounds). If anything, Freeman’s numbers this season are proof of the effectiveness of other signal callers in the conference. He’s completing 61 percent of his passes, is throwing for 278 yards per game and has a three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. But even with all of that, he’s still rated ninth in the conference in passing efficiency.

Logan Dold (6-0 195), a true freshman out of Garden Plain, has emerged as the Wildcats’ top rusher following the injury to LaMark Brown (6-2 225). Dold, who was originally recruited as a defensive back, leads the team with 295 yards rushing. Prince has said he’s cautiously optimistic about the return of Brown this week. When healthy, Brown brings a nice blend of size and speed. The Wildcats also rely quite a bit on Freeman as a runner. The quarterback has 286 yards on the ground this year and also serves as a short-yardage back, rushing for several first downs on third and short, while putting up 13 touchdowns.

Brandon Banks (5-7 142) is listed as the lightest receiver in the FBS on the Kansas State Web site, but he’s also been one of the country’s most effective. He’s second in the conference with 813 yards and serves as K-State’s big-play threat. He has seven touchdowns on the year and averages 21 yards per catch. Deon Murphy (5-10 170) supplies more speed to the equation. He has 338 yards and four touchdowns on the year, and is always a threat on a reverse. Aubrey Quarles (5-11 195) and Ernie Pierce (6-4 209) are nice possession receivers. Pierce had a breakout game against Oklahoma, catching 11 passes for 176 yards. What’s even more impressive is that the yardage total was more than Pierce put up in his first 15 games at K-State combined. Tight end Jeron Mastrud (6-6 253) is another weapon, and has more than 300 yards receiving.

Center Jordan Bedore (6-3 310) is another player that Prince is cautiously optimistic about. If he can’t go, the Wildcats will continue to get by with converted defensive lineman Zach Kendall (6-3 287) at the spot. Brock Unruh (6-6 288) and Eric Benoit (6-4 286) have been tapped as the starters at guard, while Nick Stringer (6-6 271) will get the nod at right tackle. Edward Prince (6-5 289) and Alesana Alesana (6-4 304) will continue to rotate at left tackle.

Any problems offensively are miniscule compared to what the Wildcats have done defensively. The Wildcats will shift from a 3-4, which is the alignment listed on the depth chart, to a 4-3 at times, but neither have really helped. K-State is 12th in total defense, 11th in rushing defense and 10th in scoring defense in the conference.

Some of those problems stem from a defensive line that has struggled to create consistent pressure. The Wildcats have just 14 sacks in eight games, with preseason All-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell (6-5 255) getting just 3.5. Neither defensive tackle Daniel Calvin (6-3 310) nor Brandon Balkcom (6-1 292) has been able to apply pressure up the middle either. True freshman defensive end Brandon Harold has been a bright spot, ranking third in the conference with 10.5 tackles for loss. He adds three more sacks, while Eric Childs, a smallish pass rusher, has three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Kansas State has gotten up-and-down production from its linebackers. Ulla Pomele (6-1 228) has been the standout player in the middle, leading the team with 50 tackles, 6.5 of which were in the backfield. Alex Hrebec (5-11 238) and Hansen Sekona (6-0 230) rotate at the other middle linebacker spot. Olu Hall (6-3 230) and Reggie Walker (6-1 247) are nice athletes on the outside.

Cornerback Joshua Moore (5-11 184) has been another bright spot on a defense with few of them. The other cornerback spot has been a revolving door with Blair Irvin (6-0 180) and Ray Cheatham (   ). The Wildcats will start former quarterback Tysyn Hartman (6-3 204) at the free safety spot, though Chris Carney (6-1 190), a team captain, will likely see time as well. Courtney Herndon (6-0 211) has given the Wildcats some production against the run, grabbing 44 tackles, including 4.5 in the backfield.

Brooks Rossman has been a solid kicker, nailing 7-10 field goals and 39-40 extra points. He has plenty of leg, connecting with a 53 yarder earlier this season. Punter D.J. Fulhage is averaging 38.1 yards per punt. Kansas State’s coverage units are among the tops in the conference, while Murphy is one of the country’s most dangerous return men. Quarles also fields some kicks. Overall, the Wildcats have scored five touchdowns this year when the opposing team punts, be it from returns or from blocks.

They may need one of those scores this week to defeat the Jayhawks and get to a bowl game. If nothing else, the matchup this year, as it was last year, should be entertaining.

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