Football season has returned.
Get your initial dose tonight. North Carolina-South Carolina. USC-Hawaii. Ole Miss-Vanderbilt. Revel in it, friends. Fall is here.
Then get ready for Friday night lights in Manhattan. K-State opens the season a day early with a nationally televised game on Fox Sports 1 against North Dakota State. The Bison, coached by former Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, are two-time defending FCS national champions. They also beat KU a few years ago, in case you'd forgotten.
K-State is itself a defending champion, having secured its second Big 12 title with a 42-24 win over Texas last December. But the Wildcats lost a Heisman finalist in quarterback Collin Klein and Big 12 defensive player of the year Arthur Brown to graduation, as well as a host of other starters on defense. The preseason media poll has K-State finishing seventh in the Big 12, or one place lower than last season.
Players to Watch
Passing: Jake Waters (2012, at Iowa Western Community College, 2012 NJCAA national champions), 244-333-3, 3,501 yards, 291.8 yards/game, 10.5 yards/attempt
Rushing: John Hubert (2012), 189 carries, 947 yards, 15 TDs, 5.0 yards/carry, 72.8 yards/game
Receiving: Tyler Lockett (2012), 44 receptions, 687 yards, 4 TDs, 15.6 yards/reception, 52.8 yards/game
North Dakota State
Passing: Brock Jensen (2012), 207-338-8, 2,331 yards, 6.9 yards/attempt, 155.4 yards/game
Rushing: Sam Ojuri (2012), 215 carries, 1,047 yards, 12 TDs, 4.9 yards/carry, 74.8 yards/game
Receiving: Ryan Smith (2012), 49 receptions, 547 yards, 3 TDs, 11.2 yards/reception, 45.8 yards/game
The Bison return their leading passer, rusher and receiver from last season, which is impressive for a national-championship team. In a lot of ways, the 2012 Bison offense resembles the 2012 Wildcat offense, though NDSU was an even more run-heavy team than was K-State, with a 641:357 rushing attempt:passing attempt ratio (64.2 percent). K-State was 526:315 (62.5 percent). North Dakota State also played at a somewhat faster pace than K-State (who didn't/doesn't?), averaging 71.3 plays per game, to K-State's 64.7.
To put a positive spin on it, NDSU being a mirror image of K-State also means that they don't have the kind of gamebreakers we see in the Big 12. The offense is full of efficient, disciplined players, but is not particularly explosive. This game will be a good test for a K-State defense full of newcomers. It's efficient, but a disciplined team with better overall athletic talent should make things tough on the Bison.
K-State: 32nd nationally, 194.0 yards/game
NDSU: 21st, 203.5
K-State: 90th, 207.8 yards/game
NDSU: 98th, 166.7 yards/game
K-State: 59th, 401.8 yards/game
NDSU: 57th, 370.2 yards/game
K-State: 21st, 127.2 yards/game
NDSU: 4th, 93.9 yards/game
Pass Efficiency Defense:
K-State: 43rd, 124.7 rating
NDSU: 17th, 113.7
K-State: 46th, 376.1 yards/game
NDSU: 1st, 234.5 yards/game
Once again, almost mirror images, although NDSU did have a better defense. But the goods news? That's a defense competing at the FCS level, which didn't face anything resembling the offenses and athletes K-State sees in the Big 12.
But that doesn't mean the Bison will be a pushover. They return their entire linebacking corps (and top three tacklers from last season) in Grant Olson, a 6', 228-lb. senior from Plymouth, Minn., Travis Beck, a 6', 214-lb. junior from Munich, ND, and Carlton Littlejohn, a 6'1", 216-lb. junior from Minneapolis. This group combined for 332 tackles, 31.0 TFL, 10.0 sacks, two interceptions, seven passes broken up, eight quarterback hurries, five fumble recoveries and nine forced fumbles. In other words, they're good.
In the secondary, free safety Christian Dudzik (a 5'10", 188-lb. junior from Omaha, Neb.) returns, and was the fourth-leading tackler last season. Marcus Williams (5'11", 190-lb. senior from Minneapolis, Minn.) returns at cornerback, and led the team with seven interceptions last season.
The defensive line returns Cole Jirik (6'5", 248-lb., senior from Northfield, Minn.), who led the team with 13.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks last season. Defensive end Kyle Emanuel (6'3", 246-lb. junior from Schuyler, Neb.), and nose guard Ryan Drevlow (6'4", 281-lb. senior from Gwinner, ND) also return, and combined for 17.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks in 2012.
Good linebackers are good linebackers, and Olson, Beck and Littlejohn will be a difficult test for the K-State offense. But unsurprisingly for a lower-division team, they are not especially big. If K-State's offensive line can consistently get past the Bison defensive line and get hats on the linebackers, it should be able to wear them down. This is a game where I'd like to have a bigger running back to lean on them, too, but a fresh John Hubert will suffice.
The NDSU defensive line also returns players with impressive statistics from 2012, but is also undersized. Drevlow was a disruptive force against FCS competition, but should have a hard time getting much push against a K-State offensive line whose starters average better than 300 lbs. A a well-coached K-State offensive line that is bigger at every position should be able to open running lanes. The key to breaking bigger runs will be getting to the impressive NDSU linebackers.
Assuming Jake Waters starts for K-State, NDSU's secondary should be ready to see a lot of action. Dudzik was impressive in run support last season, but statistically wasn't very disruptive in the passing game (two interceptions, one pass broken up). But Williams was, and his lack of size won't be a liability against Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson.
Trying to guess how K-State's first game of the year will go, especially with so many new faces, is nothing short of impossible. Jake Waters will probably start at quarterback, but whether he'll get a chance to sling the ball around or not is in doubt. With a size advantage along the line, K-State will probably make NDSU prove it can stop John Hubert in the running game before it resorts to letting Waters air it out. Of course, taking a page out of Baylor's playbook and stretching the NDSU defense horizontally with a bunch of out routes could open the middle in a hurry.
Defensively, K-State should be able to break in a lot of new faces against a solid, if unspectacular, Bison offense. North Dakota State isn't the type of team that's going to break off a bunch of big plays against K-State without some real help from the Wildcats in the form of assignment breakdowns.
This likely shapes up as a low-scoring slugfest, with K-State mostly in control but never pulling away. In other words, a lot like the TCU game last year.
K-State 21, North Dakota State 10