For the approximately two centuries that Bill Snyder has been around Kansas State football, the hallmark of his game has been his ability to take little-heralded two-star and three-star recruits and drag them into games against opponents that hopelessly outmatch them in terms of talent – and somehow, annoyingly, stick around until the bitter end and keep the outcome in doubt.
Just ask Oklahoma State, TCU or Baylor, which combined for 31 wins last season but each barely squeaked by 6-6 Kansas State in tight, one-score games.
It looks to be that sort of formula again on Friday night at Stanford Stadium, when Snyder will lead the Wildcats against a much deeper, much more proven Cardinal squad ranked in the national top 10 – and unfortunately for the Cardinal, despite the talent disparities, there might be a favorable matchup that the Wildcats can exploit to keep the game close and spoil Stanford’s opener.
Here’s our scouting report on how the various matchups should shake out between Stanford and Kansas State:
Kansas State running game vs. Stanford front seven:
It’s no secret what Kansas State hopes to do when it has the ball – much like the Cardinal teams of years past, the Wildcats like to methodically drive down the field, eat large chunks of clock and take their time.
Key word in that sentence: “hopes.”
In a word, the K-State offense last year was awful and borderline unwatchable at times because that strategy didn’t work despite having two future NFL offensive linemen setting the tone up front. Because quarterback Jesse Ertz was lost for the season after the third play of the season opener, they never had a serious passing game and opponents were able to eat the Wildcats’ runners alive at the line.
The Wildcats’ run-first offense was held to a measly 134 yards per game on the ground and they only managed 3.86 yards per rush, which ranked 100th in the country.
That’s not getting much better this season.
Though Ertz is back and healthy and will lead an option-style running attack (Kansas State loves its mobile quarterbacks), the Wildcats have to replace four of their five starters on the offensive line, which is a dicey proposition in and of itself, but the problem was compounded by the fact that neither of the two JUCO transfers they brought in to play tackle is evidently game-ready at this point, so they had to move their only returning starter, center Dalton Risner, to right tackle, shocking just about everybody around the program.
While Kansas State hopes to plug its openings with some combination of two- and three-star recruits up front, Stanford will give them a big mouthful of Solomon Thomas, poised for a national breakout season,
and a much beefier Harrison Phillips, who, by all accounts, is stronger and faster than he was before his season-ending ACL injury last year. Add highly touted recruit Dylan Jackson to the fray, whose technical prowess at defensive end has made up for his lack of size at the position according to the coaches, and this battle on the lines is shaping up to be rather one-sided – and not at all pretty.
Kansas State running back Charles Jones has only had one 100-yard game in his career despite being a senior with plenty of game experience. Don’t expect that to change on Friday.
Advantage: Stanford front seven
Kansas State passing game vs. Stanford secondary:
The truth is, we really don’t know what Jesse Ertz has to offer from the quarterback position, and he’s a real wild card in this matchup. They say Ertz has a better arm than Joe Hubener, whose stat line last year was so ghastly that the wide receiver that K-State had to play as emergency quarterback recorded a better stat line than him – so that’s clearly not saying much.
So with that said, there’s clearly nowhere to go but up for K-State’s quarterbacks. Ertz only lasted two plays last season after winning the starting job, but the fact that there was a competition at all against the awful Hubener is probably a good indication that Ertz, a two-star recruit out of high school, shouldn’t exactly be a world-beater.
(People also said this about Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson last year, but he ended up having a quite decent game against Stanford. Oops.)
The Wildcats lose receiver Kody Cook, who was the only thing even remotely resembling a deep threat on the roster, and return top wideout Deante Burton, who caught 38 passes last year for 510 pounds but lacks the explosiveness needed to consistently stretch defenses. They also return Dominique Heath, who is shifty out of the slot but, at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, is at a serious physical disadvantage against Stanford’s elite recruits.
The crown jewel of this year’s receiving corps, though, will be Butler Community College JUCO transfer Byron Pringle, who caught a 73-yard pass in the Spring Game and was impressive enough to be crowned the top receiver on the team during fall training camp. He’ll be counted on to give Ertz a big (6-2, 212) target as both a possession receiver and a deep threat, and should be able to out-physical a lot of the defensive backs he meets this season.
Luckily for the Cardinal, Stanford does return a lot of size and length at the cornerback position in Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks, which does mitigate the concern a bit. Holder, in a sneak preview as the team’s CB1, didn’t exactly shut down JuJu Smith-Schuster in the Pac-12 Championship last year against USC, but he did hold the stud receiver to just 7.9 yards per catch, which was, by far, a season-low. And of course, we all saw Meeks’ stellar instincts at nickel last season.
But really, since the running game shouldn’t be able to do much of anything, Stanford will be able to devote its safeties to help in coverage most of the time, and it’s helpful to know that most of the time, the ball will end up targeting Pringle or Burton – which, with noted ball-hawk Zach Hoffpauir patrolling center field again, is not a pretty sentiment for K-State.
With the increased depth at linebacker and defensive line, and K-State’s lack of experience on the offensive line, Lance Anderson and company should dial up all manner of blitzes for a hungry defense, which should help the secondary make some opportunistic plays and play more aggressively than the passive, bend-but-don’t-break style of last season.
This matchup gives the DBs a perfect opportunity to shake off the rust after a long offseason.
Advantage: Stanford secondary
Stanford running game vs. Kansas State front seven:
This is where things could get a little interesting. Stanford is replacing three starters on offensive line, and while signs have been promising towards the end of training camp, the calamitous 2014 showed us that it’s tough to evaluate an offensive line with any degree of certainty until it’s hit real opponents in real games.
David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren have hopefully learned how to manage an offensive line’s transition more smoothly from that 2014 season, because they’re going to be tested right out of the gate against a K-State front seven that might be one of the best in the Big 12.
They return defensive end Jordan Willis, who was one of the best pass rushers in the Big 12 with 15.0 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, as well as junior defensive tackle Will Geary, who was All-Big-12 first team last season with 40 tackles and two forced fumbles.
And behind a deep defensive line, they return experienced linebacker Elijah Lee, who led the team with 80 tackles last season, and is on a plethora of trophy watch lists and the preseason All-Big-12 team. Alongside him are breakout candidate Charmeachelle Moore (say that fast 10 times) and Will Davis, who didn’t take a predicted step forward last year but still recorded 54 tackles.
Make no mistake: The stats might not have been so kind to K-State’s rush defense last season, but that’s because the secondary was garbage and less the fault of this experienced, hard-nosed front seven that could give the new-look Stanford offensive line some trouble if it doesn’t open the season with its best stuff.
Willis is expected to line up against new right tackle A.T. Hall all game, so the junior should have his hands full in his first career start – Stanford might need to help him out with additional blockers on that side if they’re planning to run that way or in pass protection. Kansas State was also one of the best teams in the country at stopping short-yardage runs and pressuring the passer on clear passing downs,
so Stanford will need to be sure to have efficient first-down and second-down plays to not get new quarterback Ryan Burns into a compromising position early behind an offensive line that hasn’t been fully broken in yet.
But any discussion of the Cardinal’s running game would be remiss without mentioning Christian McCaffrey, who was already expected to bear the burden of the offense but will have to do so even more now with Bryce Love officially ruled out for the game. We saw time and time again last season that McCaffrey is one of the best in the nation at improvising and making something out of nothing on broken plays, so even if the offensive line does struggle to get on its feet early, McCaffrey – the ultimate safety valve – should be able to mitigate the more obvious signs of a shaky transition with his playmaking ability.
Stanford will, as always, try to establish its identity on the ground first and foremost, especially with an unproven Burns under center. That won’t be easy against K-State, which returns proven experience and talent in the trenches. McCaffrey is McCaffrey, sure, but not even he can completely overcome a shaky offensive line.
Advantage: Kansas State front seven
Stanford passing game vs. Kansas State front seven:
It says a lot that even though K-State’s offense was so bad last season, it was hardly the major weakness of the team – because the secondary was an absolute, unmitigated disaster. Two of the four expected leaders of the secondary were lost to injury early on in the season, so younger guys had to step in and were exploited early and often by the high-flying offenses of the Big 12.
Maybe “exploited” isn’t a harsh enough word – they actually finished 121st out of 128 teams in the country, allowing 285.5 passing yards per game.
Safety Dante Barnett, who was hurt in the opener last year and missed the whole season, is back as a fifth-year senior and a third-year team captain, and Duke Shelley, who was forced into action as a true freshman last year, will return and man a cornerback spot.
Outside of that, though, the Wildcats really have a plethora of transfers and young guys that emerged at the end of last season as stopgap options that show promise, which isn’t a great sign against what might very well be the deepest and most talented group of receivers compiled on The Farm in quite some time.
(Incidentally, one of those transfer DBs is Cedric Dozier, who couldn’t even start in Cal’s horrendous secondary so transferred to K-State. For some reason, I’m not too worried about those transfer guys anymore.)
The Wildcats lost guys in coverage way more than they should have last season – that’s where Trenton
Irwin, primed for a huge breakout season, and the shifty Jay Tyler step in. They let the talented receivers of the Big 12 stretch them over the top – that’s where guys like Michael Rector and Isaiah Brandt-Sims come in.
Especially since the safeties are likely to be supporting the run more often than not because, well, Christian McCaffrey, the openings should be there for the taking all night for the Cardinal’s wide receivers – and that’s not to mention a hopefully healthy Dalton Schultz and McCaffrey in the passing game, who will often get matched up against those safeties in man coverage (which really, really isn’t fair to that poor safety).
Really, it all comes down to Ryan Burns, and more than that, it comes down to the offensive line’s ability to protect Burns. I don’t expect that Burns’ arm and poise on the field will be all too much of a concern given his physical prowess, but if the Cardinal’s offensive line can’t protect him from the fierce K-State pass rush in clear passing situations, it could be a messier debut than Burns planned for.
In the end, though, I think the threat of McCaffrey slipping out for screens or running routes out of the backfield is going to be too much for the pass rush and safeties to be playing in their comfort zone, and Burns should have a pretty solid day against a K-State secondary that doesn’t really have the tools to take a huge step forward after last season’s struggles.
Advantage: Stanford passing game