There are a couple of “lasts” for UCLA in this game. We know it’s the last game before Chip Kelly officially takes over the Bruins program and it very well could be the last game of Josh Rosen’s UCLA career, as the junior quarterback is expected to enter the NFL draft.
Meantime, just when you want to count out Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, the 78-year-old has something up his sleeve. The Wildcats were sitting at 3-4 in late October after a loss at home to the Oklahoma Sooners. A bowl berth didn’t look likely for the Wildcats. But Snyder, without his starting quarterback Jesse Ertz, pulled off four wins in five games to end the season, as K-State wrapped up a 7-5 campaign. It’s the eighth straight season Snyder is bowling during his second run as Kansas State’s head coach.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. UCLA
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Chase Field (Phoenix)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Kansas State -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Rosen’s last audition
It’s expected Rosen will depart for the NFL after this game. If he does decide to do so, this will be his last chance to impress the scouts, who are likely to flood this game just for a look at the California signal-caller. And Rosen can’t ask for a much better matchup. Kansas State gave up 310 passing yards per game, the most in the Big 12.
But Rosen was prone to interceptions, and each time it cost the Bruins. There were three games where Rosen threw at least two picks and UCLA lost all three. Rosen threw 10 this season and K-State’s secondary was opportunistic this season. The Wildcats had 12 interceptions as a team and finished third in the Big 12 with plus-10 in turnover margin. By comparison, the Bruins were 11th in the Pac-12 in turnover margin (-9).
2. Kansas State’s running attack
The Wildcats have always run the ball heavily under head coach Bill Snyder, but when quarterback Jesse Ertz went down and they turned the reins over to underclassmen Alex Delton and then Skylar Thompson, the running game seemed to become that much more important. Kansas State averages 187 yards per game on the ground, the second most in the Big 12. By comparison, the UCLA defense enters this game at 283 rushing yards per game allowed, last in the Pac-12 by more than 45 yards. In fact, only one other FBS team has given up more (San Jose State, 285.4 ypg). Alex Barnes and Dalvin Warmack got the majority of the carries as the season progress. Those two should have heavy workloads come Tuesday night in the desert.
3. Which team is less careless?
UCLA was not a very efficient team this season, hence the eventual firing of Jim Mora. As noted above, they were minus-nine in turnover margin and the Bruins also were the second-most penalized team in the Pac-12 at over 75 yards per game. By comparison, Snyder’s teams are never the most talented, but they typically play the smartest. This season, Kansas State is losing just 45 yards in penalties per game, good for the third-best mark in the Big 12.
After a long layoff, as well as the focus factor when it comes to some teams viewing bowl games as nothing more than an exhibition, the one that comes out making fewer mistakes in the opening quarter can determine the outcome.
When UCLA lost, the Bruins usually lost unimpressively. Of their six losses, four were by at least 17 points. Meantime, four of Kansas State’s five losses were by no more than a touchdown. Also, the Wildcats have all the momentum with Bill Snyder reportedly planning to come back for the 2018 season, so there are no question marks as to who is leading the program.
Then, there’s Kansas State redshirt freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson, who solidified himself as the quarterback of the future in Manhattan with his play down the stretch. He led Kansas State to its final two wins of the season with his arm and his legs. He finished the two games with four touchdown passes and zero interceptions for more than 350 yards, as well as 100-plus yards and two touchdowns on the ground. His dual-threat ability is likely to give a weak UCLA defense fits throughout the night.
Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen will put up an impressive stat line and head to the NFL, but his team will be hampered by its sloppiness, which has been its downfall all season. The Chip Kelly era cannot come soon enough in Westwood.
Prediction: Kansas State 35, UCLA 31
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a college football analyst for Sports Illustrated’s SI Now and a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio. He can be found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.