Who would have thought it would come to this?
In my preseason prognostications, I projected this weekend's game to be the most important of the season in the Big 12 North. Other people thought likewise, apparently, as ESPN's College Gameday crew considered heading to Columbia for this matchup.
Two months later, we're left with a matchup of two teams with a combined 7-9 record, including 3-7 in conference play. The Tigers' struggles do not compare to what the Wildcats have suffered through, though, including a home loss to suddenly dreadful Fresno State and a road defeat at Kansas. Running back Darren Sproles, who appeared to be primed for a run at the Heisman Trophy, has struggled but still nears the top of the conference in rushing. Missouri will face a multifaceted Kansas State offense but has the horses to shut down the Wildcats.
If Kansas State loses this game, their postseason dreams are over. If the Tigers lose, they will face a similar situation the next three weeks. By playing at home, Missouri will have an edge by playing, but a desperate Wildcat bunch might surprise.
The Tigers only win by default. Both units have struggled mightily of late: Missouri has not scored a touchdown in more than six quarters, while Kansas State allows 29.8 points per game, 11th in the conference and 83rd in the country.
That stat is a little misleading, as the defense has been burned by turnovers and bad field position often. But that's a lot of points regardless. Neither aspect of the defense is particularly good, but the pass defense, allowing 189.8 yards per game and third in the conference, is better. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the coaching staff has not shown much faith in the running game recently. If they return to it this weekend with reinstated junior TB Damien Nash, Missouri should find success.
That is, if Nash doesn't run right into DT Jermaine Berry. The senior is the heart and soul of the line, ranking third on the Wildcats with 40 tackles. He has only managed one sack, but he is a significant run-stuffer in the middle of the line. The rest of the unit is experienced, led by senior end Kevin Huntley, who is tied for the team lead with three sacks and two fumble recoveries. The other end, junior Scott Edmonds, is also a threat off the edge, although he has just 16 tackles to go with three sacks.
Sophomore Brandon Archer has emerged as the team's top linebacker, leading the team with 52 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. Not far behind is weak-side backer Marvin Simmons, who is second with 45 stops.
The secondary has a lot of experience, but it has not been able to convert that into takeaways. The Wildcats' starting cornerbacks, seniors David Rose and Cedrick Williams, have not recorded an interception this season. Junior Jesse Tetuan is a playmaker at strong safety, leading the unit with 39 tackles. Junior Bret Jones, a juco transfer that starts at free safety, is the only Wildcat with more than one interception, having recorded two.
If Missouri is looking for a secondary to get healthy against, this is it. Jones is the only starter taller than 6-feet, so Missouri has a chance to win some jump balls. The strength of the linebacker corps might limit what the Tiger tight ends can do, but Missouri should be able to move the ball consistently.
Kansas State uses a 4-3 base defense.
This is a tough call. Sproles has not been the Sproles of old, but he torched the Tigers to the tune of 273 yards last season. You cannot compare this Missouri defense to last season's, though, so the Tigers get the nod, barely.
Kansas State averages almost 30 points per game, much of that thanks to Sproles. The senior remains the go-to guy on the Wildcat offense and is a threat all over the field. Barring an injury, he will break the 1,000-yard barrier against the Tigers, as he sits at 936 on the season. He is dangerous as a receiver as well, having caught 24 passes for 164 yards. Sproles has found the end zone just seven times on the season, but he has a few games left to make up for that. His height makes him incredibly hard to find behind the hulking line, and the bowling ball-like back is not easy to drag down on first contact. The Tigers must find a way to do that, though, or they will be in for a long day.
The Wildcat quarterback duties are murky, as sophomore Dylan Meier has proved to be a decent passing threat, but sophomore transfer Allen Webb ran all over Nebraska a few weeks ago. If the depth holds, Meier will get the start, but if he struggles (or coach Bill Snyder wants to give the offense a boost), Webb will see some playing time.
Neither player has been able to show the consistency that made the departed Ell Roberson so dangerous, but both are talented signal callers. Meier has completed 113-of-186 passes for 1,311 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He can also shift the pocket, having gained 215 yards and six touchdowns on 73 attempts. Webb has completed 25-of-52 passes for 228 yards in limited duty, to go with one touchdown and two interceptions. He has rushed 66 times for 173 yards and five touchdowns, four of which came against the Cornhuskers two weeks ago.
After losing standout James Terry to graduation, the receiver corps is not as talented this season. Sophomore Jermaine Moreira leads the team with 29 receptions, but sophomore Yamon Figurs is the deep threat, having caught 25 passes for 450 yards and two touchdowns. After them, reserves Davin Dennis and Tony Madison are the only receivers in double digits in receptions. Senior TE Brian Casey is a reliable receiver in the red zone; he has caught 17 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
As always, the offensive line is big and talented. The numbers are not there as they usually are, but it still ranks 37th in the country in rushing. There have been more breakdowns than Wildcat fans are accustomed to, as the line is eighth in the conference in sacks allowed, with 13. The line will likely start four seniors and a junior, with LT Jon Doty and RT Jeromey Clary the top performers. Keep an eye on the left guard spot; true freshman John Hafferty might get a start there, instead of senior Malcolm Wooldridge.
The Wildcats run a multiple offense, often using three wide-out sets to complement a running back and fullback.
Advantage: Kansas State
Senior Joe Rheem is probably the most consistent kicker in the Big 12. He is second in the league in percentage, having hit 11-of-12 attempts. His only miss, from 49 yards at Kansas, was blocked. He has only attempted two field goals in the past three games, but he is as automatic from inside 40 yards as anyone in college football.
Junior Jesse Martinez lost the punting job to true freshman Tim Reyer. Neither has been especially impressive, but Reyer has been less bad, averaging 40 yards per punt, including a long of 67.
Sproles lost the punt return duties but still handles kicks, averaging 24.7 yards per return. Figurs has taken over the punt team and average 6.3 yards per return.
Quite a few factors come into play here. Missouri has not beaten Kansas State since 1992, a run of 11 straight losses. The Wildcats have enjoyed a run of 11 straight bowl games, a streak that will end if they lose Saturday. The Tigers have lost three in a row, while the Wildcats have lost four of five. Amazingly, the Wildcats have only played two road games this year, falling at Texas A&M and Kansas to open league play last month.
Those factors almost make it seem like nobody wants to win this game, but that is impossible nowadays. If, and this is a very big if, the Tigers commit to the running game early and often, Missouri should be able to manage a win. If the Wildcats do the same, and Sproles runs wild, we could be in for a shootout. Kansas State would get the edge in that kind of game, given the recent struggles of the Tiger offense.
I do not expect any of those scenarios to happen. Missouri wins a tight one when a big play from the defense -- let's say, a forced fumble by junior S Jason Simpson -- stops a late Wildcat drive and a long run of disappointment against the Wildcats.