Last season, this matchup appeared destined for another Sooner letdown after OU fell down 21-7 during the first half. Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield once again showed zero quit in the Little Apple, as he rallied the team to a dramatic comeback in the second half. The night was also special because it was Rodney Anderson’s first career breakout game, culminating in an improbable, go-ahead touchdown run in the waning seconds.
Now, Oklahoma is sitting in roughly the same position it was when these two played a year ago, but K-State hasn’t looked nearly as formidable as it was last season. Still, as long as the legendary Bill Snyder is manning KSU’s ship, Sooners fans know better than most to never underestimate the Wildcats. In fact, two of the last three times this game was played in Norman, the wily purple wizard waltzed away with the ‘W’.
Other than a plethora of Oklahoma turnovers, the No. 1 way this game could wind up as an utterly embarrassing upset is if Kansas State follows Army’s game plan and eats up the clock in bunches. Oklahoma has already played three teams that are averaging more TOP than KSU (43rd) this season in the Black Knights of West Point (1st), Baylor (16th) and Texas (19th). Still, the blueprint is out there and the formula is rather simple, and the Wildcats have the players and the coaches to pull it off.
Something to keep an eye on for K-State will be the yardage gained first down. If the Wildcats are gaining four or more yards per play on first down, the Sooners could be in for a long afternoon. Staying on schedule is part of what the Black Knights were able to do so well, and you better believe Bill Snyder is going to try to replicate that very same strategy.
The next aspect of controlling the game that KSU will aim to accomplish is converting on third down. Again, this is what Army also did well, along with converting fourth downs in plus-territory. Quarterback Skylar Thompson shouldn’t light up Oklahoma’s secondary with deep balls and bullet passes, because that’s not what Kansas State’s offense is designed to do. In pass plays, expect him to take what the defense gives him. Limiting yards after the catch will go a long way towards keeping the ‘Cats off schedule and behind the chains.
If Kansas State wants to make this a competitive game for four quarters, it’s going to have to completely dominate time of possession. Winning on first down and converting on third and fourth down has to be the way, otherwise the Wildcats could fall behind the Sooners quickly. As we all know, Oklahoma can build a lead in a hurry and turn on the cruise control from there.
With the status of starting running back Trey Sermon up in the air following the TCU game, redshirt freshman Kennedy Brooks has another chance to continue his rise as a force in Oklahoma’s running game. Personally, I think Sermon will see the field, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his touches limited by some measure.
The other part of Oklahoma’s running game that must be acknowledged and followed is the growth of the offensive line. Pretty much since the beginning of the season, pass protection has been quite good, but run blocking has been up and down. Against TCU, the O-line unit turned in its best performance of the season, paving the way for the Sooners to rack up 323 yards on the ground against one of the best defenses in the Big 12.
Another factor to this equation is that Kansas State has not been nearly as strong in its run defense through seven games this season as they were all throughout 2017 (173 vs. 121.8 yards per game). In last season’s matchup, Oklahoma rushed for 209 yards on a 5.5 average per carry, and that includes a 32-yard loss on a failed punt attempt. With Oklahoma’s offensive line coming together, the mobility of Kyler Murray, and the emergence of Kennedy Brooks, it could be another long day on the ground for KSU’s D.
If there’s one player on Kansas State’s entire team that should cause concern, it’s running back Alex Barnes. The Wildcats go as he goes, and this season he’s thriving as the go-to guy.
Coming into Week 9, Barnes is the Big 12’s leading rusher with 788 yards, as well as the conference leader in rushing scores with 9 TDs. This might be a breakout year for the junior, but he came into this season as a proven big play threat. Last season in Manhattan, on the opening drive of the game, the big back flexed his top end speed right up the gut against Oklahoma for 75 yards and the score. That night he finished with a total of 108 yards on six carries.
If the Wildcats are going to have any chance at making this a game, Barnes is going to have to be the driving force behind it all. Ruffin McNeill and the Sooner defense will be well aware of how much Kansas State will rely on him, but recognizing that and stopping him are two completely different things. If he has even 75% of the success he’s had on average this season, expect this one to be at least a bit closer than Vegas suggests.
If you’re keeping track, the two main keys for K-State’s game plan coming into this game are both on offense. They need to maintain long possessions and Alex Barnes needs to feast. On the other side of the line of scrimmage will be the revamped Sooner defense. In its first test under interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, there was marked improvement in both effort and player positioning.
Now Oklahoma’s defense was far from perfect against the Horned Frogs, but it’s evident that the heavily scrutinized group seems to finally be trending upwards. Against an opponent who struggles at times to move the ball like Kansas State, that improvement needs to continue to show on the field.
Starting MIKE linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. and crew can’t rely on the Wildcats to hurt themselves with penalties or mental errors, so they’ll have to be on their A-game to produce stops. Creating turnovers is another aspect of the game that the defense seems to be on the very cusp of, but have struggled to capitalize on. Still, priority No. 1 for this defense hasn’t changed. It’s all about the basics. Sure-tackling and maintaining assignments will make this game much more comfortable for all wearing the crimson and cream, both on the field and throughout the stadium.
At the end of the day, the disparity in talent between Oklahoma and Kansas State is quite vast, and it’s pretty much been proven that the only way to truly slow down or limit the Sooner offense is to just keep it off the field entirely. With a defense that’s finally showing some improvement, I don’t envision the Wildcats having nearly as much success as Army did in that aspect, and for that reason I see OU running away (literally) with this one in the second half.