The Oklahoma State Cowboys are set to travel to Manhattan, Kansas, to face the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday for a Big 12 Conference game featuring two of the most difficult-to-diagnose teams in the league. Oklahoma State picked up a marquee win over Boise State in non-conference play and rose to No. 15 in the AP Poll. However, two upset home losses in three conference games, including last week’s 48–42 letdown against Iowa State, mean the unranked Pokes sit 4–2 overall.
Kansas State has had an even more frustrating stretch. The Wildcats are 2–4 overall and riding a three-game losing streak following last week’s 37–34 loss at Baylor, meaning Bill Snyder’s squad is now 0–3 in Big 12 play. Yet to play some of the Big 12’s heavyweights, the margin for error is extremely thin for Kansas State’s bowl hopes.
Oklahoma State at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Oklahoma State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The running backs
Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill and K-State’s Alex Barnes rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing yards, respectively. Hill has 643 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a junior. He has eclipsed the 100-yard mark four times this season (and 18 times over three years) and has scored at least once in each game in 2018. After he was limited to just 66 yards on 24 attempts by Iowa State, Hill has an opportunity to bounce back against the Wildcats.
Barnes exploded for a career-high 250 rushing yards and scored three TDs on just 22 carries last week against Baylor. It was just the second time this season Barnes hit the century mark, and the first against an FBS opponent. The junior has 607 rushing yards and five scores on the ground so far this season, and he has averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
2. Stopping the run
Thanks to Hill and his running mates, the Pokes lead the Big 12 in rushing offense (213.5 yards per game). Barnes and his crew have averaged 175.0 yards per contest, which ranks fifth in the league. And with both teams relying so heavily on the run, each opposing defense will have its hands full. So far in 2018, one unit has proven itself capable, while the other has struggled.
Led by linebackers Justin Phillips and Calvin Bundage and defensive linemen Jordan Brailford and Jarrell Owens, Oklahoma State also leads the conference in rushing defense (117.83 ypg). The unit has held opponents to an average of 3.2 yards per carry, which also tops the league leaderboard. Meanwhile, Kansas State is on the other side of the spectrum. The Wildcats rank ninth in the conference against the run (180.67 ypg), and have surrendered an ugly 5.3 yards per attempt that ranks 117th in the nation.
3. Rushing the passer
The Oklahoma State passing attack has been stellar during head coach Mike Gundy’s tenure, but the Pokes aren’t quite as explosive this season with quarterback Tyler Cornelius at the helm. Still, the Cowboys average a healthy 309.8 yards per game through the air, which ranks fifth in the Big 12 and No. 18 nationally. K-State has rarely relied on the pass under Snyder, and 2018 is no exception as the Wildcats rank last in the conference and No. 113 overall in passing offense (170.5). Though both quarterbacks can make plays with their feet, neither Skylar Thompson or Alex Dalton has emerged as a steady passer.
Rushing the passer, and also protecting the passer, will be paramount for both teams. Oklahoma State has allowed 18 sacks this season (third most in the league), while K-State has surrendered 20 — more than any Big 12 team despite attempting the fewest passes. The Wildcats will face an especially tough test against a Cowboys defense that leads the nation with 28 sacks this year, led by Brailford, who leads the conference with 8.0 sacks. K-State has just nine sacks as a team, which is tied for fewest in the Big 12.
Both Kansas State and Oklahoma State have a history of punching above their weight in the Big 12. Unfortunately, both have slipped in 2018. The Wildcats have been especially disappointing, and with a one-dimensional offense and struggling defense, K-State is in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Mike Gundy’s squad is in a little better shape, given its ability to run or pass offensively, and both stop the run and rush the passer on defense. The Wildcats are always tough to beat at home, but the Cowboys should survive.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 27, Kansas State 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.