• UCLA will face Kansas State in the 2015 Valero Alamo Bowl Friday, January 2nd, at 3:45 PST, with the game televised by ESPN.
• The game is in San Antonio, Texas, in the Alamodome (seating: 65,000).
• UCLA is ranked #14 in the College Football Playoffs rankings while KSU is #11.
• The Wildcats are 9-3, and 7-2, coming in third in the Big 12 behind Baylor and TCU. KSU had a strong season, similar to UCLA’s, and were lingering in the College Football Playoff conversation a little at times this season. They had a tough, early loss to Auburn in September, but then won the next five games, including a win over then-#11 Oklahoma, to be at 7-1 by the beginning of November. They were then beaten pretty soundly by TCU (42-20) Nov. 8th, and then finished the year with a loss to Baylor (38-27).
• KSU was 1-3 against ranked teams in 2015. Its three losses came against three teams currently in the CFP ranking, Auburn, TCU and Baylor.
• The teams Kansas State lost to were a combined 40-6 on the season. The FBS teams the Wildcats beat were a combined 43-50.
• UCLA and KSU had one common opponent in Texas, with the Wildcats beating the Longhorns 23-0 at home. UCLA, if you recall, beat Texas 20-17 in AT&T Stadium when second-string quarterback Jerry Neuheisel took over for injured Brett Hundley and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Jordan Payton in the final minutes.
• It will be the third meeting in history between UCLA and KSU, with each program having one win. The two schools had a home-and-home in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, In Rick Neuheisel’s second season as UCLA’s head coach, the Bruins beat the Wildcats in the Rose Bowl, 23-9. The next year, in Manhattan, Kansas, KSU beat the Bruins, 31-22.
• Kansas State hasn’t played the Pac-12 much in its history, other than Colorado, which used to be in the Big 12. It has a winning record against just three Pac-12 schools, USC (2-0) and Cal (1-0) and Oregon State (1-0).
• The Wildcats are led by future Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Snyder (75). It’s not difficult to make a case that Snyder has done one of the most miraculous head coaching jobs in college football history. In 1989, Sports Illustrated published an article calling Kansas State “Futility U” since, to that point, KSU was legitimately the worst program in major college football, with an overall record of 299-509-41. Snyder took over the program in 1989 and since is 195-110-1, perhaps pulling off the most dramatic transformation in the history of college football. Not to be condescending to Manhattan, Kansas, but Snyder’s accomplishments are that much more miraculous that he’s been able to attract recruits to come to KSU, and then Snyder also is known for getting the most out of his talent. His teams are fundamentally-sound and disciplined and his coaching is creative and innovative. Snyder has had two stints at KSU, the first one from 1989 to 2005. He then retired but the Kansas State program slipped back into mediocrity. He was coaxed back in 2009 and KSU subsequently regained its prominence. KSU has finished in the top 25 for twelve of Snyder’s 25 seasons, and six times in the top 10. He had three losing seasons in his first four years in Manhattan, while trying to turn around the most-futile program in college football and then, again miraculously, has only had two other losing seasons since. He has won 10 games at KSU nine times, and if he beats UCLA it will be 10 times. Snyder’s most successful period was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he strung together four straight 11-wins seasons, and six out of eight. That’s six out of eight seasons when Kansas State won 11 games. His 187 wins is second among active coaches at their current schools, behind just Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer (230), who UCLA faced last year in the Sun Bowl. Snyder is on the 2015 College Football Hall of Fame ballot.
• Kansas State’s Stadium is named Bill Snyder Family Stadium. When Kansas State wanted to re-name its stadium to honor the coach, he asked that it be named after “the people I care about most.” Snyder is only one of three college coaches to ever coach in a stadium that bears his name, along with Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan at Auburn.
• Kansas State sold out the entire season (the stadium holds 53,000), and has sold out 20 straight games.
• Kansas State has won 47 straight games when leading at halftime, which is currently the longest active streak in the country. Jim Mora, since being at UCLA, has won 24 straight games when leading at half.
• Since 1990, K-State is 153-27 (.850) when scoring first. It has scored first in seven of its 12 games this season and won each of those games.
• KSU is undefeated this season in games when it’s scored 30 points or more.
• UCLA has been ranked as having the toughest or second-toughest schedule in the country this season, vying with Auburn for that distinction.
• The Bruins also were the team that traveled the most miles in the FBS this season.
• For UCLA, it’s the last game for quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks, two players that have played huge roles in UCLA’s climb back to relevancy the last three seasons. Other departing seniors are OL Malcolm Bunche, running back Jordon James, defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, defensive back Anthony Jefferson, linebacker Ryan Hofmeister, fullback Tre Hale, and offensive lineman Sam Tai.
• The betting line has moved quite a bit. Kansas State started out as 3.5-point favorites, and then the line settled in over a few weeks with KSU anywhere from 1- to 2-point favorites. Today, the line changed again, with UCLA now 1-point favorites.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 51 degrees in San Antonio on Jan 2nd, and mostly sunny skies.
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.
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).
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.
Kansas State’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Kansas State has a good defense, but it’s probably the weaker of the two sides of the ball for the Wildcats. They give up 5.2 yards per play, which is good for 47th in the country. By comparison, UCLA’s defense, which was maligned at times this year, gave up just 5.1 yards per play, and faced better competition throughout the year. The scheme, which uses a lot of the 5-2 Double Eagle that Snyder has run essentially since he got there, has been mostly bend-and-don’t-break this year, with fairly good results. Despite a somewhat mediocre yards per play allowed statistic, Kansas State has a top 25 scoring defense, giving up just 21.8 points per game.
At linebacker, Jonathan Truman is the real leader of the defense. The senior leads the team in tackles by a wide margin (114 total, which is 41 more than the second leading tackler, Dante Barnett). Though not tall, he’s a very effective tackler, and is a heady player with a very good feel for where the play is headed off the snap. Will Davis and Elijah Lee are the two other starters, but there’s a pretty significant rotation between those three, Marquel Bryant, Colborn Couchman, and Trent Tanking. When Kansas State goes to a nickel, it usually involves one of the linebackers coming off the field, and the Wildcats do spend a good amount of time in nickel.
The secondary is probably Kansas State’s best unit, with very good experience at all levels. The Wildcats start three juniors and a senior, with another senior as the primary nickelback. Dante Barnett, the strong safety, is the second leading tackler, and will often work in as a box safety on running downs. The corners are both pretty effective, with starting corner Morgan Burns recording three interceptions this year and his counterpart, Danzel McDaniel, putting together a good showing in his first year in the program after transferring in from a junior college. Randall Evans, the nickelback, might be the most talented in the bunch, though. He’s leading the team in interceptions (4) passes defended (13) and passes broken up (9). He’s been a do-everything player for Kansas State this year, and he’ll likely get a lot of work on Friday against UCLA’s spread scheme.
UCLA’s offense has had an up and down season, due to a variety of reasons. First, to start the year, the offensive line really struggled to pass block, culminating in a ten sack showing against Utah. Then, when the offensive line got figured out with Conor McDermott’s insertion at left tackle, Brett Hundley hit a bit of a midseason lull, which kept the offense from really hitting peak levels during the latter half of the season. Despite that, it was still mostly very productive, which is a credit to the scheme and Hundley’s ability to use his legs to make plays when the passing game isn’t work too well.
As we said, McDermott’s switch to starting left tackle seemed to jumpstart the offense. He was much better as a pass blocker than Malcolm Bunche, and also seemed to help the run game with his athleticism and ability to get to second level blocks. Bunche will actually miss the Alamo Bowl due to academic issues, but he wasn’t starting by the end of the year, with Alex Redmond supplanting him at left guard.
The running game has been UCLA’s most consistent asset this year thanks to the steady play of Paul Perkins. Perkins came out of nowhere to lead the conference in rushing this season, and what was truly remarkable about him was that he seemed to run just as well against truly elite defenses as he did against poor defenses. Behind him, Nate Starks had a very good first year, and seems poised to have a nice career as a Bruin.
Overall, the offense put together some pretty good numbers, but there was a distinct lack of consistency, and the inability to put together good performances against Stanford and Oregon prevented UCLA from rising to the echelon of the truly elite this season.
Kansas State’s defense is decent, but UCLA has better talent and a scheme that’s well designed to take advantage of the Wildcats’ weaknesses. The Bruins should be able to spread Kansas State out horizontally with swing passes and receiver screens, which could open up routes over the middle and in the seams. Running-wise, while Kansas State is a disciplined, sound defense, UCLA’s offensive line should be able to win some one-on-one matchups up the middle, allowing some running lanes for Perkins.
The Wildcats are a disciplined group, though, and UCLA will have to show patience offensively to generate points. It’s unlikely that the Bruins will be able to hit many big plays against this defense, and if they get impatient like they did in the second half against Stanford, it could prove costly.
In the end, though, as long as UCLA doesn’t turn the ball over significantly more than Kansas State (in other words, as long as UCLA doesn’t turn the ball over more than once), we think UCLA has the talent and scheme to score a good number of points against this defense.
The explosive Tyler Lockett handles both kick and punt returns for Kansas State, and he’s been effective this year. He averages 19 yards per punt return (with two touchdowns) and 21.2 yards per kick return. Morgan Burns actually has worked in at kick returner as well, and he’s been even more explosive, averaging 30.7 yards per return with a touchdown. UCLA, on the other hand, started the year off very well, with Ishmael Adams actually returning a kick for a touchdown, but tapered off when teams stopped kicking to Adams about midseason. It’ll be interesting to see if Kansas State kicks to him, but based off what we’ve seen, we’ll give this part of the matchup to Kansas State.
Matthew McCrane, the freshman kicker, took over for Jack Cantele four games into the year and has been excellent. His one miss has come from 34 yards, but he’s hit 16 of 17, with a long of 53 yards, and multiple 40+ yard makes. Ka’imi Fairbairn has been his usual self this year, hitting the majority of kicks under 40 yards and being much spottier from greater distances. This side of the matchup, again, goes to Kansas State.
The punting game is mostly a wash, with Nick Walsh averaging about 40.5 yards per kick, with 14 of his 40 dropped inside the 20. The two-headed monster of Matt Mengel and Adam Searl has been about as effective for UCLA, though they’ve faltered a bit through the last few games. We’ll call this one even.
Kansas State’s special teams coverage is good, but probably not as good as UCLA’s. The Wildcats have only allowed nine punt returns this year for a total of 113 yards – which is good, but really doesn’t compare to UCLA allowing 13 punt returns for a total of 31 yards. The Bruins have made their name on special teams with kick coverage, and it’ll be a very interesting matchup to see how they do against another elite return man in Lockett. UCLA takes this side of the special teams matchup.
This is a big game for UCLA, and Jim Mora. Getting to ten wins for the second year in the row would be a good referendum on the direction of the program, and would go a long way toward alleviating any concerns that may have sprouted after the Stanford shellacking to end the year. This game features the best bowl game opponent for UCLA in a long, long time, and offers what should be a great opportunity for UCLA to showcase its resurgence on a national stage.
It’s really going to come down to scheme, coaching, motivation, and game planning. Right now, just looking at both sides of the ball, you’d have to come to the conclusion that UCLA is the more talented team. The Bruins are bigger, faster, and just generally more athletic than their Kansas State counterparts. But the Wildcats have a legend on the sidelines in Bill Snyder and a proven ability to take limited talent a long way. This game, especially coming on the heels of the Stanford loss, is an opportunity for the UCLA staff to show its ability to outscheme a well-coached opponent.
In the end, we think Mora and company are very motivated to win this game – as Mora has said several times, the Stanford game is one that’s eating at them, and we think they’ll use that as fuel. This is also Brett Hundley’s last game as a Bruin, not to mention Eric Kendricks, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and Anthony Jefferson, and we think each of those guys is going to want to put on an excellent showing for their NFL Draft prospects. From what we’ve seen, it’s not the case, as it has been in bowl games during the lost decade, where UCLA’s seniors are just looking to have a nice party week – there’s too much riding on their performance in this game.
We think Kansas State will be able to score some points, and outperform their talent by a considerable margin, but in Hundley’s last game as a Bruin, he’ll put together a very nice performance, both running and passing, to put the final touches on his legacy at UCLA.
Kansas State 28