Game Week: KSU's O vs. UCLA's D

Dec. 30 -- Kansas State has a very good passing attack, led by star wide receiver Tyler Lockett...

Kansas State’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

As you’ve heard UCLA’s defensive staff mention several times over the last month, Kansas State uses a complex offense, with a variety of different formations, motions, and concepts built into the scheme. If you were going to slap a general term on the offense that Kansas State runs, it would probably be “spread”, but the Wildcats have a variety of pro concepts built into the scheme as well, using I-formation and double tight-end sets often enough to keep defenses on their toes, making it very difficult to defend against.

Kansas State has co-offensive coordinators in Dana Dimel (in his 17th year at Kansas State) and Del Miller (in his 18th year at Kansas State). It’s a fair bet as well that head coach Bill Snyder (who’s in his 23rd non-consecutive year at K-State) has a good deal of input on the offense. Kansas State is the quintessential example of what quality coaching continuity can produce. This year, the Wildcats average 6.2 yards per play, and the offensive production comes mainly through the passing game, with Kansas State having the third most productive passing attack in the country on a yards per play basis.

Jake Waters.
The offense is led by senior dual-threat quarterback Jake Waters (6’1, 210), who’s put together a productive season. Despite his size, he’s actually more inclined to run between the tackles than other running quarterback types, and Kansas State will use him on a variety of designed runs, along with typical run/pass option situations. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the world, but he can hit most throws, even if deep outs to the sideline can give him some trouble. He’s been bottled up much more as a runner over the last half of the season as teams have keyed on him more, and we’d imagine UCLA will have that aspect of the offense well scouted.

The best player on the offense is senior wide receiver Tyler Lockett (5’11, 175), who’s an explosive player. He’s averaged over 14 yards per catch during his four-year career, and this year caught 93 balls for 1351 yards. Perhaps most importantly, he’s had his best games in the last four, recording 44 catches for 669 yards, including two huge 196-yard performances against both TCU and West Virginia. He’s a great route-runner, has very good hands, and has very good speed, making him a tough cover for virtually every corner in the country. On the opposite side, fellow senior Curry Sexton (5’11, 183) has had a productive year in his own right, recording 69 catches for 955 yards. Sexton also has good speed, and is similar in size to Lockett. Behind those two there’s a significant drop off, with senior tight end Zach Trujillo (6’5, 256), junior wide receiver Kody Cook (6’1, 196), and sophomore wide receiver Deante Burton (6’2, 205) all with 17 catches on the year. Trujillo is a big body who’s most often used as a blocker, but he can be effective in the red zone. Compared to most Pac-12 offenses, Kansas State throws infrequently to its running backs, with the two main backs with just 14 combined catches.

The running game hasn’t been great for Kansas State this year, and much of that is due to a lack of talent at the running back position. Sophomore Charles Jones (5’10, 197) and senior Demarcus Robinson (5’7, 209) are a true platoon, with each getting about equal carries this year. Robinson is the quicker, more elusive back, but Jones has good size and might have better top end speed. Neither player is particularly dynamic, though, and neither is a real threat to break off a long touchdown run. Waters, actually, has more carries than either running back. Admittedly, that number includes sacks, but even so, it’s generally not a good sign when the quarterback has to run more than the running backs. Jones has been effective in short yardage situations, so there’s that, but all-in-all, this offense is geared, rightly, much more to the pass.

Kansas State’s offensive line is a very experienced group, with four juniors and a senior in the starting unit. Starting left tackle Cody Whitehair (6’4, 309), who can play both tackle and guard, has a good mean streak and plays with very good strength and tenacity. Center B.J. Finney (6’4, 303), the lone senior in the group, won first-team All Big-12 honors this year and has started for the Wildcats for the last four years, with most of those starts coming at center. Having that kind of continuity in the middle has been key in providing another steadying influence to an offense that is seemingly full of steadying influences. Left guard Boston Stiverson (6’4, 312), right guard Luke Hayes (6’6, 295), and right tackle Matt Kleinsorge (6’5, 306) round out the starting unit. They’ve allowed 24 sacks as a group, which is a pretty good number for a team that uses a running quarterback as much as Kansas State does.

UCLA’s defense was really a much different unit over the last half of the season than it was through the first half. As Jeff Ulbrich has talked about over the last few weeks, the Bruins went into the season with much more of an NFL-style defense, relying on players reading and reacting to the offense rather than dictating to offenses through blitzing, stunting, and other schematic wrinkles. Naturally, UCLA struggled to start the year, with players looking a bit tentative in the scheme as they tried to figure out their assignments on any given play.

Since the Oregon game, though, UCLA’s defense became much more proactive in terms of scheme and aggression, and the results improved dramatically. Against California, the defense was actually very good, but critical turnovers led to Cal scoring more points than they really should have. Against Arizona and USC, the defense was elite, shutting down two very good offenses thanks, in large part, to more aggressive play up front and on the outside in coverage. They may sound like simple fixes, but by working in a few more blitzes per game, putting the corners in press coverage more, and using stunts on the interior more, UCLA produced much more effective defensive performances as the season wore on (the awful Stanford performance notwithstanding).

Myles Jack.
One of the very interesting wrinkles over the last few games involved using Myles Jack as a defensive back more. Jack actually was a huge part of shutting down Nelson Agholor against USC, and even wasn’t horrible against Stanford’s bigger receivers (the touchdown caught on him had more to do with safety coverage than anything). We’ve heard that UCLA even thought of putting him at safety on a more regular basis earlier in the year, but ultimately decided against it. In any case, it appears that there is very little on a football field that Jack can’t do.

This game will mark the last UCLA football game for seniors Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Eric Kendricks, and (most likely) Anthony Jefferson. While Odighizuwa and Jefferson will both leaves shoes needing to be filled, Kendricks’ will be especially large. He’s had a great senior season, putting together his first truly healthy campaign since his redshirt freshman year. His combination of range, coverage ability, tackling ability, and feel for the game is something that’s really hard to come by, so UCLA fans should savor these last sixty minutes of getting to watch him play.

ADVANTAGE: Kansas State

The Wildcats have a very productive passing offense going against a secondary that just hasn’t played extremely well this year, and against a pass rush that hasn’t been able to generate a really consistent pass rush this year. Tyler Lockett is going to be a tough cover for whoever is matched up against him, whether that’s Fabian Moreau, Ishmael Adams, or Myles Jack, and, like we said above, Sexton is no slouch as well.

This offense also requires a defense to be very disciplined, which is something UCLA has struggled with at times this year. UCLA’s edge containment will need to be very good, preventing Waters from getting open running lanes and keeping him confined to the pocket. If the Bruins can keep him in the pocket, and force him to just make throws out of standard drops all game, that’ll be a win.

In the end, we anticipate Kansas State’s offensive staff will be able to design a game plan that accounts for UCLA’s stunts on the interior, in much the same way that Stanford did, and negate much of the pressure UCLA would hope to bring with just four rushers. Without a great deal of pressure on Waters, he should be able to make enough throws to Lockett and Sexton to generate some good offensive production. If UCLA can limit him as a runner, though, that’d be significant, and hopefully stunt a few drives before they get going.

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