Big 12 play gets underway for the Kansas State Wildcats (3-0) and Oklahoma State Cowboys (3-0) as they look to notch their fourth win of the season and remain undefeated.
For the Cowboys last week, it was a narrow one-point victory on the road against Boise State where neither team scored a single point in the second half. Something needed to change with Oklahoma State's wildly inconsistent offense, and that change came in the form of running back Jaylen Warren, who rushed for 218 yards and two touchdowns to help seal the victory.
As for Kansas State, last weekend was the first game without starting quarterback Skylar Thompson, who is out indefinitely after suffering a leg injury in Week 2 against Southern Illinois. The Wildcats didn't miss a beat, soundly defeating one of the better Group of 5 opponents in Nevada 38-17, with sophomore quarterback Will Howard stepping in and playing mistake-free football. Kansas State was rewarded for its efforts by landing in the last spot of this week's AP Top 25 poll.
With the Big 12 looking wide open through three weeks, this suddenly becomes a crucial early-season matchup that could have major implications down the road.
No. 25 Kansas State at Oklahoma State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma State -6
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Howard played in nine games last year after Thompson suffered a season-ending injury, so you knew the sophomore wouldn't be tentative in his first start of 2021. That was evident on the second play of the game when Howard ripped a strike down the middle of the field to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a 68-yard touchdown against Nevada. Howard would go on to attempt just nine more passes the remainder of the game, but played mistake-free ball, completing 70 percent of his throws with zero turnovers.
He wasn't needed against the Wolf Pack with the way Kansas State has run the football to start the year. The Wildcats are averaging 226 rushing yards per game, much of which coming on the shoulders of running back Deuce Vaughn. After leading the team in rushing, receiving, and all-purpose yardage a season ago, the star sophomore is off to another electric start, already up to 371 rushing yards and six touchdowns while averaging six yards a carry. Oklahoma State has been very good at defending the run to start the year, allowing just 95.3 yards per game, but will need to keep tabs on Vaughn for 60 minutes with the way Kansas State utilizes him in multiple facets.
When Oklahoma State Has the Ball
The Cowboys needed a spark in the worst way on offense entering last Saturday's road game against Boise State, already down two starting receivers and operating with a passing attack that hadn't been in sync. That spark came in the shape of former Warren, a Utah State who had a career day with 218 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. Despite a fourth-quarter fumble that nearly cost Oklahoma State the game, Warren's emergence was desperately needed not just to secure a big win over the Broncos, but for the offense's outlook moving forward. Prior to Warren's breakout performance, the Cowboys were averaging just 90 rushing yards per game.
A newfound rushing attack does not solve all of Oklahoma State's offensive woes, unfortunately. Down multiple starting receivers didn't help matters the last two weeks, but alterations are needed in the passing game where Oklahoma State is now 103rd in passing yards per game. When is the last time we saw a Mike Gundy-led offense complete just six passes in a game? Whatever the answer is, quarterback Spencer Sanders must be better this week against a Kansas State defense that is among the best in the nation, allowing 280 total yards per game and less than two yards per carry. No doubt the Wildcats will be loading the box to stop Warren on Saturday.
Stranger things have occurred, this is college football after all, but it would be a shocker if this is not a defensive battle on Saturday. Neither team is going to stretch the field vertically to threaten a defense, and both Kansas State and Oklahoma State can effectively shut down the run as proven through the first three weeks of the season. The outcome will be decided in the fourth quarter between two similarly-matched teams, with the slight advantage to the Cowboys playing at home.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 23, Kansas State 21
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.