The Oklahoma State Cowboys and Kansas Jayhawks both entered Week 4 of the 2018 college football season with momentum. However, both lost Big 12 conference openers that dampened the outlook for the rest of the season.
Oklahoma State had been on the doorstep of a top 10 ranking nationally after beating a highly touted Boise State squad. Then the Cowboys fell out of the AP Top 25 altogether after being unceremoniously upset by Texas Tech 41-17 at home. At 0-1 in league play, the Pokes must get back on track quickly to get back in the race for a spot in the Big 12 championship game.
Kansas had overcome a disastrous season-opening loss to an FCS opponent to win two in a row. Thoughts of bowl eligibility had finally appeared realistic, but then the Jayhawks were beaten easily by Baylor in what might have been their best chance at a conference victory. Now at 2-2 overall with losses in winnable games, Kansas has a huge uphill climb to bowl eligibility, and head coach David Beaty may be running out of time in Lawrence. This week’s matchup offers an opportunity to get back to .500 in the Big 12, but more importantly, the winner could get its season back on track.
Oklahoma State at Kansas
Kickoff: Saturday Sept. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: FOX Sports Net
Spread: Oklahoma State -18
Three Things to Watch
1. The running backs
Kansas’ Pooka Williams and Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill have been the two best running backs in the Big 12 through the first quarter of the season. Williams, a true freshman, leads the league in rushing yards per game (125.67) and has scored three touchdowns in three games. Hill, a junior, leads the conference in rushing yardage outright (388) and has five TDs in four contests.
Both Williams (8.02) and Hill (8.43) have averaged more than eight yards per carry so far this season, and both should be fresh. Williams has shared the load with Khalil Hebert and Dom Williams, a pair that has combined for 268 rushing yards on 52 carries. Hill’s backups LD Brown and J.D. King have combined for 232 rushing yards on 35 carries.
2. Productive pass rush
Oklahoma State ranks No. 7 in the Big 12 and No. 70 in the country in total defense, well behind the Jayhawks, having allowed 377.3 total yards per game this season. Nevertheless, the Pokes have been much better than Kansas on a yards-per-play basis. Opponents have gained 4.79 yards per play against Oklahoma State — second best in the conference and No. 34 in FBS — compared to the 5.0 yards per play KU has surrendered.
Credit goes to the Cowboys’ productive pass rushers, who have combined for 19 sacks — not only the most in the Big 12 (by a large margin; TCU ranks second with 11), but also more than any FBS team to date. Jordan Brailford leads the team (and the conference) with 4.0. Jarrell Owens ranks second on the squad with 3.0 sacks, followed by Mike Scott with 2.0. Overall, 11 Oklahoma State defenders have been credited with at least one sack.
3. Big plays and turnovers
Oklahoma State’s pass rush has been very good, but the Cowboys have also been susceptible to the big play. Opponents have gained 10 yards or more 55 times against the Oklahoma State defense this season and have gained 20 or more yards on 20 occasions, both of which rank second to last in the Big 12 and 87th and 92nd, respectively, among all FBS teams.
Kansas has been better at limiting big plays, but not by much. The Jayhawks have allowed 50 plays of 10 yards or more, which ranks fifth in the conference and 70th nationally. KU also ranks in the middle of the pack in opponent plays of 30 yards or more (7). Those figures will be put to the test by an explosive Oklahoma State offense that leads the Big 12 and ranks No. 2 nationally in plays of 20 yards or more (34) and ranks in the top 20 nationally with an average of 7.07 yards per play.
However, Kansas could prove a difficult challenge. KU has been among the nation’s best at forcing turnovers. In fact, the Jayhawks lead the nation in turnover margin (+12) thanks to a Big 12-best 13 takeaways — second most in the country.
Momentum came to a screeching halt for both Oklahoma State and Kansas in Week 4, and now the two teams square off desperate for a win. Simply put, the Cowboys have the best chance to get it.
Oklahoma State has a solid rushing game and a more potent passing attack (even with the unexpected departure of veteran wideout Jalen McCleskey to transfer). Kansas has some productive players on defense, including tackling machine Joe Dineen Jr. as well as three players with interception returned for touchdowns, but Oklahoma State has an elite pass rush, and a more talented roster overall. Expect the Pokes to bounce back and pick up a much-needed win on the road.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 42, Kansas 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.