Kansas State Preview: Here Kitty, Kitty

Kansas State fields such a young football team that it's tempting to call them the Kitty Cats. But these Wildcats have a chance to grow up quickly when No. 3/4 Texas visits Manhattan on Senior Day.

Seniors? What seniors? Last week versus Colorado, first-year coach Ron Prince (who, at age 37, is D-I's third-youngest head coach) opened the game with eight underclassmen in his starting lineup. The list includes true freshman QB Josh Freeman, true freshman TE Jeron Mastrud and true freshman CB Joshua Moore. The team's leading rusher is true freshman Leon Patton. But here's a whack stat: the starting lineup includes eight former, or current, walk-ons. Eight! As is often the case, three of K-State's special teams players are walk-ons. But, eight!

It's all part of Prince's makeover of a once formidable program that has not been ranked since September, 2004. But the Cats are learning to pounce, evidenced by consecutive Big 12 wins for the first time since 2003. Much of that turnaround may be attributed to freshman QB Josh Freeman, who inherited the starting job at midseason. Prince had three quarterbacks with starting experience and originally went with Dylan Meier. The senior had six starts in 2004 but missed all of last season due to reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder.

Freeman earned his first career start against Oklahoma State, leading his team to a comeback win, and has won three-of-five. It means the 6-4 Cats, picked as the Big 12 North's cellar-dweller in most preseason polls, are bowl eligible and still have an outside shot at the Division title. (They need to roll the table and have Nebraska lose twice). But there's no doubt that Freeman has given his club a lift. He is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week after going 22-for-26 passing for 251 yards and two TDs Saturday at Colorado. He is the first freshman to start for K-State in 30 years.

"Freeman has done for them what Colt has done for us," Longhorn coach Mack Brown told Inside Texas. "They're playing at a very high place right now because he's playing at a very high standard. When you hit 15-of-16 (last Saturday), that's hard to do against air. He did that in the first half against Colorado and ended up 22-of-26. He didn't just start hot, he stayed hot. Josh Freeman is playing as well as anybody in the country. It will be a great challenge to play against him. You can look at the young ones we've play against lately. (Oklahoma State's) Bobby Reid came in hot, and now Josh Freeman being the same."

Horn fans hope the results are the same. Reid was flustered into an 11-of-28 performance Saturday with two INTs, no TDs and twice threw the ball into the stands. Meanwhile, McCoy's outrageous ascension now includes O'Brien Award semi-finalist honors and, for the second week, was listed No. 4 in the Hesiman race as projected by the Rocky Mountain News Service panelists of Heisman voters.

The Wildcats look to pad their bowl resume while remaining in contention for a Division title. After all, Big 12 North frontrunners tend to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory down the stretch. Texas, obviously, brings even higher stakes to Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The Horns can win the South and clinch a berth in the Big 12 title game with a W in the Little Apple. As important, No. 3/4 Texas would remain in the thick of the national championship race with a whole lot of shakedowns going on in the weeks to come.

"That can't be our focus," Brown said, "because when you start looking at things that are more important than playing well, you get into trouble."

Texas' last trip to the Sunflower State bears testament to Brown's statement. Who can forget Vince Young miraculously salvaging a 27-23 comeback in the closing seconds in Lawrence two years ago this weekend? It shouldn't come down to that Saturday, but stranger things have happened than when 50,000 Kansans click their heels and repeat that there's no place like home.

It can be argued that Prince's earliest victory was when he wrestled Freeman away from Nebraska after the prep star initially leaned toward the Huskers. The Cats have averaged 378 yards of total offense the past two weeks (albeit against Colorado and Iowa State), but much of the production has come via Freeman's arm. He is 88-of-174 for 1,138 yards on the season. Yet, his TD-to-INT ratio is U-G-L-Y: 3 TDs and 9 INTs in eight appearances.

"He's a very athletic and bigger (6-6, 238) than Bobby Reid, believe it or not," Chizik said. "I know he's got a strong arm. He gets the ball out there. Most of his runs will come off play-action and boots. What he does is buy himself extra time to get rid of the ball because he's got really good speed."

Reid is not as likely to scramble as Reid. Leon Patton is entrusted with moving the chains with his feet, collecting a team-best 470 yards on 81 carries. He also averages 34.4 per KO return. At 5-7, the freshman RB is an Oompa-Loompa in shoulder pads. At 184 pounds, he's one of those mighty-mites cut in the mold of former Wildcat Darren Sproles. So far, that's where the comparison ends. This is not a strong rushing team. K-State is averaging just 132.5 rushing ypg (NCAA No. 68). However, it is an improving rushing offense: the Cats averaged just 95.4 yards on the ground in 2005. The running back duo of Patton and James Johnson, both Texas natives, have combined for four 100-yard games in the last five weeks.

Starting WR Jermain Moreira, considered his team's best route runner, will miss Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury. He leads the Cats with 52.4 receiving ypg.

All told, K-State ranks No. 78 in total offense (322.8 ypg).

The Wildcat defense is a far cry from the 1998 bunch that stuffed Ricky Williams for 43 yards, or the 2002 crew that held Texas to 46 net yards rushing and 230 total. There are some individual standouts, but this is a relatively mediocre unit that ranks No. 59 nationally (327.5 ypg). First-year defensive coordinator Raheem Morris spent the past four seasons as a Tampa Bay assistant, so expect over-2 and cover-3 schemes. The Cats tend to blitz about 26 percent of the time, making them one of the least blitz-happy teams in college football.

"They're going to throw a bunch of tricky stuff at us but we're going to have to handle it," QB Colt McCoy said.

Injured safety Marcus Watts is not expected to play until bowl season, according to Prince. The freshman led the team with three INTS during the first eight games of the season.

Sophomore DE Ian Campbell is one of those former walk-ons who has staked his claim to All-Conference honors. Campbell leads the Big 12 with 15 TFL and is second in the league with 10.5 sacks. An outstanding speed-rusher off the edge, Campbell will be matched against RS-freshman Adam Ulataski. Senior DT Quintin Echols is a pro-prospect and has been a mainstay in the Wildcat D-line for three seasons.

"Kansas State has always had quick fronts and they're not afraid to come after you," Brown said.

Senior linebacker Brandon Archer leads the team with 78 tackles.

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