This should be one of the more interesting cat-and-mouse battles in this game. Texas received great news on Friday when it was announced that Ash would be fully cleared to play, and start, against the Wildcats. Not only does that help out Texas running up-tempo, but Ash's arm strength allows the Longhorns to test parts of the field that Texas could not with backup Case McCoy. And none of that mentions the fact that Ash is much more of a threat to run. The Wildcats don't seem to project as an elite defense this year, at least early on, though even when Bill Snyder hasn't had great defenses, they've still thrived on turning teams over. That's especially true with Zimmerman, who picked off a league-leading five passes a year ago in Big 12 play, despite missing two games. The middle of the Wildcats' defense has been vulnerable to the pass, and Ash will need to try and move Zimmerman with his eyes to open up those gaps. Further, if he can keep Zimmerman in place in the center of the field, Texas might be able to hit on a big play or two down the sidelines.
As I said above, if the Wildcats have shown a weakness against the pass, it's that they've been had over the middle. In the North Dakota State game in particular, the Bison excelled at hitting passes underneath the umbrella coverage, allowing for their slot receiver to create plays after the catch. Shipley is an intriguing matchup because of his ability to find open spots against a zone … as well as his ability to take short catches and turn them into longer gains. Watch for Texas — without Daje Johnson and potentially without Mike Davis as well — to utilize Shipley over the middle to relieve some of the offensive burden. Should Kansas State, which should play in nickel, decide to man up on Shipley, Evans will draw that duty as the team's nickel back.
Texas linebackers vs. Daniel Sams, Kansas State quarterback
This one isn't any secret. Texas has struggled to stop the quarterback run game, and, as great as Taysom Hill looked two weeks ago, Sams might be the best rushing quarterback the Longhorns have faced to date. He's actually the Wildcats' most effective runner overall; with fantastic burst, acceleration and change of direction, he's a big play waiting to happen. Sams may run quite a bit of zone read, though it's worth noting that Snyder actually made his "running QB" reputation on the quarterback draw, and the Wildcats most certainly have quarterback power in the playbook as well. Jake Waters is actually still listed as the starter, but Sams has seen his workload increase in each of the past two weeks, and that will likely be the case yet again. He's the tougher matchup for the Texas defense.
When the Wildcats do throw the ball, they have a pair of big plays in a bottle in Lockett and Thompson, two sub-6-foot receivers with outstanding speed. Both have had 100-plus yard games so far this season, and both have demonstrated their explosiveness in the return game in the past. If Texas is going to shut down the Wildcat run game, that means the Longhorns will likely have to throw a number of guys into the box, leaving one-on-one matchups with the kind of guys who can take passes to the house on any given play. The Longhorns are better equipped to handle those challenges than most — lost in the defense's poor play so far is the fact that the cornerbacks have largely done a nice job in coverage.
Texas offensive line vs. the Kansas State defensive line
So far, this hasn't quite been the Kansas State team up front that most people are used to. The Wildcats have given up 4.3 yards per carry, despite not playing the most salty competition. Texas can run the ball … even without two starting offensive linemen, the Longhorns flashed the ability to blow open holes for Johnathan Gray a week ago against Ole Miss. Ash is coming off a concussion, and while he's fully cleared, nothing should help him get back on track like a running game that takes the pressure off him to be brilliant.
X-Factor: Winning Early Downs
You could pick any number of X-Factors here. Kansas State thrives on creating timely turnovers. Texas must avoid those. Kansas State is capable of making huge, momentum-changing special teams plays. Texas must avoid those. But the bottom line is that the Longhorns must win the early downs if they're going to have a chance in this game. Putting Kansas State into long situations where the Wildcats have to throw makes their offense so much less dynamic. And traditionally, the Wildcats have done a nice job of slamming the door on third-and-long situations. So keep an eye on who's winning the early downs on either side. It could decide the winner.
It's tough to pick either team in this one. We don't really know what to expect from Kansas State, a team that hasn't faced the best of competition, and one that lost to North Dakota State. Texas has played rougher teams, but lost by double digits to both teams the Longhorns played with a pulse. It's an important game for both squads. I'm picking Kansas State for two reasons: Texas has only had two weeks to put in a new defense, and Bill Snyder is a master at attacking defensive inefficiencies. I think the Longhorn offense — while banged up — moves the ball and scores points here, but in the end, the Wildcats just have one more play in them.
Kansas State — 38
TEXAS — 35