Struggling Sunflower State teams meet in Manhattan looking to keep slim bowl hopes alive
Hopes of qualifying for a bowl game are on life support for both the Kansas Jayhawks and Kansas State Wildcats, but the winner of Saturday’s Sunflower Showdown still has a narrow path to the postseason. The Jayhawks picked up a rare Big 12 victory two weeks ago against TCU, but a 27-3 loss to Iowa State a week ago dropped Kansas to 3-6 overall and 1-5 in Big 12 play. Kansas has now dropped five of its last six in conference play and is just 2-32 in the league under head coach David Beaty. That futility is a big reason why KU has decided Beaty will not be retained for a fifth season.
K-State was unable to pull out a victory against TCU last week, and the 14-13 loss to the Horned Frogs also dropped the Wildcats to 3-6 overall and 1-5 in conference. Though Bill Snyder’s team is favored to win this week (and a victory would give Snyder 23 wins in 27 tries against his in-state rival), the Wildcats would still face an uphill battle to go bowling with Texas Tech and a trip to Iowa State still on the horizon.
Kansas at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports Net
Spread: Kansas State -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bye-bye Beaty (and sayonara Snyder?)
First and foremost, the biggest talking point heading into this year’s in-state battle will center on the future of the two head coaches. On Sunday, after suffering his 39th loss in less than five years, it was announced that David Beaty would be relieved of his duties as Kansas head coach at the conclusion of the regular season. We can expect a huge amount of speculation surrounding the direction the Kansas coaching search will go over the next few weeks. Some big names are already rumored to be interested, including national championship-winning head coach Les Miles.
But we are also likely to hear plenty of speculation about Snyder. The legendary Hall of Fame coach — whose name is already attached to the stadium in which this game will be played — won’t be fired. But Snyder might have lost his Midas touch on the field, and he’s losing the PR battle off it. He has faced some backlash in the media for his handling of the quarterback situation and for calling out players publicly. More damaging, an increasingly vocal portion of the fan base is calling for Snyder to step down before this year’s disappointing season snowballs into a full program decline.
2. The running backs
Two of the most productive running backs in the Big 12 will be on display as K-State’s Alex Barnes and Kansas’ Pooka Williams Jr. take turns toting the football. Barnes leads the conference with 918 rushing yards and is tied for the lead with nine rushing touchdowns. The junior has averaged a solid 5.28 yards per carry even though teams have crept up to stop the Kansas State rushing attack, which along with running quarterbacks Alex Denton and Skylar Thompson ranks third in the conference with an average of 179.7 rushing yards per contest.
The true freshman Williams ranks fourth in the Big 12 with an average of 88.9 rushing yards per game and is averaging an impressive 6.13 yards per carry. Williams posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances in his first two career games, and he fell three yards shy of the century mark against Oklahoma State, but he has slowed down in recent weeks. Since the beginning of October, Williams has averaged just 59.25 yards per game on the ground. However, he has emerged as a good receiving threat out of the backfield and played a huge role in the win over TCU with seven catches for 102 yards and two TDs.
Of note, both defenses have struggled to stop the run this season. Kansas ranks eighth in the conference in rushing defense (161.0 yards allowed per game), while K-State ranks No. 9 (176.7). The Wildcats have surrendered 5.35 yards per carry (compared to KU’s 4.18), which ranks 116th in the nation.
3. Putting pressure on the passer
Neither Kansas nor Kansas State has found much success moving the football through the air. The Jayhawks rank ninth in the Big 12 with 193.3 passing yards per game, ahead of only K-State, which has averaged just 158.1. However, keeping those numbers low and not allowing big plays through the air will be key for both defenses.
Kansas has done a great job forcing turnovers this season. In fact, the Jayhawks rank second nationally in turnover margin (plus-15) and also rank in the top 10 in the country with 13 interceptions. Part of that success can be attributed to the increased pressure the defense has put on quarterbacks in the pass rush. KU ranks eighth in the Big 12 with 16 sacks, but 14 of those have come against conference opponents, the fifth most in league play. Last week, the Jayhawks sacked Iowa State quarterbacks three times.
Meanwhile, K-State has allowed one of the highest sack rates in the country. The Wildcats have surrendered 26 sacks (third most in the league) despite a Big 12-low 219 pass attempts. Imagine the damage if Kansas State didn’t have Dalton Risner — an All-America candidate — on its offensive line.
David Beaty has an opportunity to hoist the Governor’s Cup for the first time, which would be a nice parting gift as he prepares to leave Lawrence at the end of the season. A win would also keep Kansas mathematically alive to make its first bowl game since 2008 — though the odds of beating both Oklahoma and Texas in the final two games of the season are practically zero.
Bill Snyder has won the trophy plenty (including nine in a row since returning from retirement in 2009), but winning Saturday could be a big step towards quieting some of his recent critics. With the home-field advantage, one of the best running backs in the Big 12 and a history of domination in the rivalry, we can expect a K-State victory, but it should be close.
Prediction: Kansas State 27, Kansas 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.