Wildcats' rugged running game will test Sooners' mediocre defense
The Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats staged a classic last year that saw OU score the go-ahead touchdown with seven seconds left on the clock in a 42-35 win. Baker Mayfield gave a Heisman Trophy-caliber performance, throwing and rushing for a combined 479 yards and four TDs.
The Sooners will be defending their home field against Kansas State on Saturday without the services of Mayfield, who’s now the starting QB for the Cleveland Browns. They’ve found a solid replacement for him in Kyler Murray, who’s currently second in the nation in passer rating.
The Wildcats’ hopes for pulling off an upset this time probably rest on exploiting OU’s mediocre defense, as opposed to slowing down Murray and company. The Wildcats have a running game built to bully the Sooners.
Kansas State at Oklahoma
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma -23
Three Things to Watch
1. Alex Barnes vs. Oklahoma's run defense
Barnes doesn’t get his due nationally as a top-tier running back, but the Sooners probably remember the 108 yards he put on them last season. He only needed six carries to do it, too. Imagine what he could do with 34 attempts, his total against Oklahoma State in K-State’s last game.
The Sooners have struggled to slow down physical backs like Barnes this season. KSU will test OU’s run defense early and often to see what kinds of improvements interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill might have made.
2. Oklahoma's wide receivers versus Kansas State’s defensive backs
In terms of games within the game, how the Wildcats' secondary matches up with the Sooners’ standout receiving corps should be a good one. Eli Walker, Duke Shelley and the rest of the KSU DBs will battle with Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb all day long.
Unfortunately for Kansas State, OU’s weapons at receiver go much deeper than just those two. Seven different Sooners have caught a touchdown this season. That's one of the reasons why Kyler Murray is tied for third in the nation with 25 TD passes.
3. Special teams
Gaffes by the Sooners in the kicking game last week enabled TCU to keep the contest tight until the third quarter. Quality play in the third phase has always been a hallmark of Bill Snyder’s teams, so Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has to clean up those mistakes to avoid giving K-State cheap scoring opportunities.
The Wildcats rank third in the Big 12 in punt returns (14.2 ypr with one TD) but are last in kickoff returns (17.4 ypr). The latter could be a good thing since the Sooners are last in the conference in kickoff coverage, giving up nearly 37 yards per return and a touchdown, a 99-yarder by TCU's KaVontae Turpin last week.
The Sooners don’t lose often on their home turf, but the Wildcats have pulled it off twice since 2012. In grand Bill Snyder fashion, they’ve accomplished that feat in the past by capitalizing on Oklahoma turnovers and mistakes. Based on what both teams have shown this season, Kansas State will need more than a few of those to have a shot at winning on Saturday.
Even so, the Wildcats have a team built to fluster the Sooners and their potent offense. Barnes will find his fair share of OU defenders to bowl over with the ball in his hands. Do that often enough and KSU can drain the clock to shorten the game.
Look for the Sooners to exploit the middle of the field when they do have the ball by running between the tackles and finding receivers being covered by KSU linebackers. That should soften up the defense to shake Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb loose for vertical shots in the passing game.
Prediction: Oklahoma 34, Kansas State 20
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.