The Kansas State Wildcats breezed through the first two weeks of the 2017 season, with a pair of 55-point performances in wins over Central Arkansas and Charlotte. However, the Wildcats will face their first true test of the season against Vanderbilt before beginning Big 12 play. The Commodores, also 2-0 after allowing a total of six points in wins against Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M, have their sights set on a second straight bowl game.
Kansas State at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept.16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Kansas State -4
Three Things to Watch
Quarterback play has been the biggest problem for Vanderbilt since Derek Mason took over the program. But once Mason settled on Kyle Shurmur as his starter, the Commodores finally reached some level of consistency. Now in his second season as the full-time starter, Shurmur has the Vanderbilt offense clicking.
The junior has completed 76.1 percent of his passes for 498 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception this season. Only five FBS QBs have found the end zone more this year, and four of Shurmur’s TDs have come on throws longer than 20 yards, which is tied for the most in the nation.
Kansas State has its own veteran quarterback, dual threat Jesse Ertz. Ertz has completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 511 yards and four touchdowns without an interception this season. He also ranks second on the team with 111 rushing yards on 20 carries — a solid 5.6-yard average. Ertiz also has the longest run of the season for the Wildcats, a 35-yard touchdown against Charlotte.
2. Running game
Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb has been the best offensive player for Vanderbilt over the last two years, but the senior has yet to break out in 2017. In two games, Webb has gained 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries — an ugly 2.8 yards per carry. For comparison’s sake, Webb averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt in 2016 and gained at least 4.2 yards per carry during his freshman and sophomore seasons. He has also yet to post a run longer than nine yards this year.
Webb is due for a breakout performance, and he showed his explosiveness with a 73-yard touchdown reception in Week 1, but the Kansas State defense has held opponents largely in check this season. The Wildcats have allowed 4.01 yards per carry and 166.5 rushing yards per contest so far.
Kansas State running back Alex Barnes leads the team with 128 rushing yards, and he and Dalvin Warmack are tied with two touchdowns each. Barnes is averaging 5.1 yards per carry with a long of 20, and Warmark averages 6.9 yards per attempt with a long of 18.
However, the Vanderbilt defense has been even stingier than the Wildcats. The Commodores rank ninth in the country in both rush defense (54.0 rushing yards allowed per game) and yards per carry (1.86) and have yet to allow a touchdown on the ground.
3. Pass defense
Vanderbilt has been surprisingly good in the passing game this season, but the Commodores have yet to face a secondary as talented as Kansas State's. The Wildcats have held opponents to 128.0 passing yards per game, which ranks No. 15 in the nation, and opponents have gained 4.3 yards per pass attempt, which is eighth best in the country.
Cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Kendall Adams are two of the best defensive backs in the Big 12, and they’ve played like it early this season. Both have interceptions, including one that Adams returned 30 yards for a TD last week. Overall, the K-State secondary is responsible for three interceptions, which is tied for most in the Big 12 to this point and ranks tenth nationally.
But the Commodores have been even better against the pass. Vanderbilt also has intercepted three passes, and opponents have averaged just 105.0 passing yards per contest and 4.0 yards per attempt — even more impressive given that Vanderbilt played Middle Tennessee (who ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing offense in 2016) in Week 1 and held the Blue Raiders to 166 yards through the air.
Kyle Shurmur is off to a terrific start, and once Ralph Webb gets going, Vanderbilt’s offense will be dangerous. However, the Wildcats are already running on all cylinders through the early season, and the K-State secondary is talented enough to keep Shurmur in check. Expect a close, low-scoring game, but for the Wildcats to escape Nashville with a win.
Prediction: Kansas State 24, Vanderbilt 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.