K-State once again dips into the Missouri Valley well for a first-game opponent. This year, the South Dakota Coyotes will visit Manhattan for the season's first contest.
You probably don't need a reminder of what happened the last time K-State opened a season in a renovated home stadium with a first-year quarterback against an FCS opponent with Dakota in its name. But take heart, K-State fans. The Coyotes aren't exactly a four-time defending FCS champion like North Dakota State. Nor are they blessed with a running back like Zach Zenner, who kept South Dakota State competitive with Nebraska for a half or so.
The Coyotes are 14-33 over the last four seasons, with a 2-10 record in 2014. Life is tough in the MVC. Let's dig into the matchups a bit.
Players to Watch
K-State will start sophomore Jesse Ertz at quarterback. The 6'3", 205 lb. Ertz hails from Burlington, Iowa, where he led Mediapolis High School. In the backfield, senior Charles Jones returns after an injury-riddled 2014 campaign in which he carried 133 times for 540 yards (4.1 yards/carry) and scored 13 touchdowns. Junior Glenn Gronkowski and redshirt freshman Winston Dimel should see time at fullback.
Wide receiver is wide open for K-State after graduation deprived the Wildcats of Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton. Deante Burton is the only returning receiver with significant experience, if we loosely define "significant." Burton caught 17 passes for 171 yards last season. The talk of fall camp has been redshirt freshman Dominique Heath, who made an impression on special teams at the spring game.
For the Coyotes, senior quarterback Kevin Earl will presumably lead the way. Earl, a 6'6", 220-lb Illinoisan, threw for 1,539 yards and eight touchdowns last season, with a 142-269-8 line. Keep an eye on Ryan Saeger, who threw for 660 yards on a 50-92-3 line, with three touchdowns. Saeger was also a decent running threat, with 262 yards on 44 carries for 4.2 yards per carry and four touchdowns. Earl effectively ran backward, on average, last season.
Trevor Bouma leads the charge among returning running backs. Bouma, a junior from LeMars, Iowa, carried 106 times for 520 yards last season. The rest of the running back group is filled with underclassmen. Sophomore Khorey Kilgore played for Blue Springs (Mo.) South in high school, and gained 211 yards on 46 carries last season.
Both of the Coyotes top receiving targets return in 2015. Senior Eric Shufford, of Rialto, Calif., caught 53 passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns last year. Junior Riley Donovan chipped in with 38 for 495 yards and one touchdown.
Travis Britz and Will Geary anchor the K-State defensive line. Britz was honorable mention all-Big 12 last season. Once again, he'll be tasked with the largely thankless job of keeping the linebackers clean to make plays.
One of those linebackers, Elijah Lee, has generated a lot of buzz this offseason. Lee played as a true freshman last season, mostly as a third-down, pass-rush specialist. The sophomore from Blue Springs, Mo., tallied 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2014.
Hard-hitting Danzel McDaniel and speedy Morgan Burns will roam the secondary at cornerback. McDaniel in particular will look to solidify his pass-coverage skills in advance of next year's NFL Draft. Dante Barnett returns at safety and, if he's improved his hands at all, should catch several passes intended for the other team. Sophomore Kaleb Prewett, the third of the Blue Springs trio, will also start at safety.
South Dakota returns its top six tacklers from last season on defense. Linebackers John Wessel, Keyen Lage and Colin Buscarini combined with defensive backs Tyson Graham, Jacob Warner and Michael Lilly for 427 tackles, 17 TFL and 2.5 sacks last season. In other words, a lot of tackles, but not a lot of disruption.
Overall, South Dakota averaged 19.4 points per game last season. The offensive output was balanced, with 1,994 rushing yards (166.2 yards/game) and 2,271 passing yards (189.3 yards/game). The defense gave up 35.6 points per game and were similarly balanced in opposing offensive output: 2,814 rushing yards allowed (234.5 yards/game) and 2,786 passing yards allowed (232.2 yards/game).
South Dakota is more this team's speed as openers go. The Coyotes sport an experienced defense that could frustrate K-State if the Wildcats are unprepared or overly conservative. With K-State likely to rely on its defense this year, a low-scoring contest is the best bet on Saturday evening in Manhattan.
Wildcats 27, Coyotes 10