The Oklahoma State Cowboys weathered an early season storm that included a shocking and controversial 30-27 loss to Central Michigan and a 35-24 loss to Baylor in their Big 12 opener. Following last week’s 37-20 victory over previously undefeated West Virginia, the Cowboys have now won four in a row to improve to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play, and are in the thick of the Big 12 title race thanks to Texas’ upset victory over the Bears.
As usual, Kansas State has been relatively quiet and sits at 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big 12. The Wildcats lost to conference title contenders West Virginia and Oklahoma, but have won three of their last four games, including last week’s 31-26 victory over rival Iowa State. A win over Oklahoma State would secure bowl eligibility, and with Baylor still on the schedule and the potential of a little luck elsewhere, the conference crown isn’t yet out of reach either.
Oklahoma State at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Kansas State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Passing Game
Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph is one of best signal-callers in the Big 12. Rudolph has completed 185 of 291 attempts (63.6 percent) for 2,532 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior ranks 10th nationally in passing (316.5 yards per game) and is No. 15 in the country with a 154.57 QB rating.
Rudolph has had great success thanks in large part to the weapons at his disposal. James Washington (43 receptions, 857 receiving yards, 6 TD) averages an explosive 19.9 yards per catch and has hauled in TD grabs of 91 and 54 yards this season. Also, Jalen McCleskey (49, 602, 5) and Jhajuan Seales (24, 356, 3) have shown big-play ability, while tight end Blake Jarwin (12, 151 yards) was an All-Big 12 selection last season.
Oklahoma State should again have success through the air Saturday. The Cowboys match up well against a Kansas State defense that has allowed an average of 260.0 passing yards per contest, which ranks No. 98 in the country. The Wildcats surrendered 339 passing yards to Iowa State last week.
Offensively, Kansas State has attempted the fewest passes (214) and completed the fewest (120) in the Big 12, and understandably ranks last in the league in passing offense (165.5 yards per game). The Wildcats also have the fewest touchdown passes (8), are tied for last with an average of 6.2 yards per attempt, and rank ninth in the conference in both QB rating (116.65) and completion percentage (56.1 percent).
K-State ranks no higher than No. 92 nationally in any of the previously mentioned categories, which helps to explain that the Wildcats are better off when keeping the football on the ground. Kansas State has attempted 30 or more passes three times this season, and has a 0-3 record in those games.
2. The Run Game
The Wildcats are in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in rushing (191.9 ypg), but their commitment to running the football has allowed them to control the tempo of the game, and in turn post the top time of possession in the Big 12 (30:55.63 per game). Though Kansas State’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection, having surrendered 17 sacks in just 214 pass attempts – an ugly 7.9 percent sack rate – the Wildcats boast a solid run-blocking unit as well as one of the most efficient running quarterbacks in college football.
Jesse Ertz leads the Wildcats with 477 rushing yards and ranks second on the team with six touchdowns on the ground. Even when counting sacks, the QB averages 5.9 yards per carry. Ertz broke off a 54-yard run last week, which helped the 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior reach the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career, though he has surpassed 75 rushing yards four times already this year.
In addition to Ertz, running back Charles Jones (439 yards, 2 TD), Justin Simon (210, TD) and Winston Dimel (43 yards, 7 TD) should have success against an Oklahoma State defense that has surrendered 4.5 yards per carry and 185.0 rushing yards per game. Those figures rank No. 80 and No. 82 nationally, respectively.
Plus, it’s worth noting that the Cowboys have gotten worse against the run in recent weeks, and struggle against quality rushing offenses. Over the last two games, Oklahoma State allowed 204 rushing yards to Kansas and surrendered 209 to West Virginia. Earlier in the year, Pittsburgh ran for 290 yards and Texas gained a hefty 329 on the ground against the Cowboys.
On the other side of the football, the Kansas State defense has been solid against the run all season. The Wildcats have limited opponents to 102.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks fifth nationally, and no opponent has gained more than 138 in a single game. Oklahoma State freshman Justice Hill (619 rushing yards, 4 TD) is a quality running back, and has surpassed 100 yards three times this season, but the Cowboys average only 136.4 rushing yards per game as a team, which ranks No. 108 in the country.
No team in the Big 12 has been better at forcing turnovers than Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lead the conference with nine fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions, which adds up to the fourth-most takeaways in the nation. Oklahoma State also has taken care of the football, leading the conference in currently ranking fourth in the FBS with a plus-10 turnover ratio. The Cowboys have won the turnover battle in each of the last four games and have posted a plus-9 ratio over that period.
Kansas State has made its fair share of big defensive plays. The Wildcats have 12 takeaways this season (including a 35-yard pick-six against Texas Tech), and thanks to a Big 12-low seven turnovers, have posted a plus-5 turnover margin. K-State has won the turnover battle in six of its eight games this season.
Though they have very different styles of play, Oklahoma State and Kansas State are quite evenly matched. The Cowboys have the advantage in the passing game, and have shown an ability to make explosive plays through the air, but aren’t likely to have much success running the football. The Wildcats should be able to move the ball on the ground, and like to lean on their opponents with slow, methodical drives, but struggle when they are forced to pass.
Whichever defense can force its opponent out of its comfort zone, or even better, force a key turnover, should come out on top. Since Oklahoma State has shown a knack for coming up with bigger plays both offensively and defensively, expect the Cowboys to steal a close road victory.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 31, Kansas State 28
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.