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Kicking the Tires: Texas Longhorns

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K-State travels to Austin for its second conference matchup. 

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Open this post in a new tab. When you’ve finished reading this post, go read that post. You won’t be disappointed.

On to business. K-State puts its 1-0 Big 12 Conference record on the line this weekend against Texas. The Longhorns beat Iowa State last Thursday in Ames in their first Big 12 contest. For the season, the Longhorns are 2-2, with losses to Maryland and USC.

K-State took care of Baylor relatively handily last week, notching a 33-20 win. With a 20-3 halftime lead, it looked like K-State may run away with an easy win, but stagnant offense and some defensive breakdowns in the second half kept Baylor in it.

For its part, Texas’ defense choked out the Cyclones, but their offense couldn’t do enough to pull away. Starting to sense a pattern here?

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Jesse Ertz, 43-82-2, 706 yards, 8.6 yards/attempt, 5 TDs, 176.5 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 46 carries, 242 yards, 5.3 yards/carry, 2 TDs 60.5 yards/game

Receiving: Isaiah Zuber, 17 receptions, 208 yards, 12.2 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 52.0 yards/game

Texas

Passing: Shane Buechele, 53-78-2, 546 yards, 7.0 yards/attempt, 3 TDs, 273.0 yards/game

Rushing: Chris Warren, 42 carries, 256 yards, 6.1 yards/carry, 3 TDs, 64.0 yards/game

Receiving: Collin Johnson, 18 receptions, 393 yards, 21.8 yards/reception, 1 TD, 98.3 yards/game

Buechele missed the USC game and has been dinged up, so keep an eye out for backup quarterback Sam Ehlinger. The true freshman is 36-67-2 for 520 yards and three TDs this season and nearly did enough against USC to validate a heroic defensive effort by Texas.

Johnson is a serious concern outside, much like Denzel Mims last week. Texas has several other guys who look the part of big threats at wide receiver, but Johnson’s 393 receiving yards is more than double Armanti Foreman’s yardage total on the year.

Warren’s impressive per-carry average is a little less impressive when you consider that 166 of his 256 yards came against San Jose State. Texas’ offensive line woes account for most of their offensive struggles this season. All-American offensive tackle Connor Williams was lost for the season, and several other starters either are or have spent time in the infirmary. And that’s on top of a couple offseason transfers. K-State’s defensive line looks like the best unit on the team, and they need to have a big game Saturday.

Texas’ defense under Todd Orlando looks like a whole new unit after the Maryland debacle to start the season. Linebacker Malik Jefferson is finally being utilized properly and leads the team with 33 tackles. Defensive lineman Poona Ford anchors the interior defensive line and is a disruptive force. K-State’s interior offensive line will face its sternest test yet. In the backfield, DeShon Elliott has four interceptions this season.

Tom Hayes’ defense has been better than expected so far. Will Geary continues his weekly diet of blocks, running backs and quarterbacks. Linebackers Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby lead the way with 26 and 25 tackles respectively. And Kendall Adams has two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns (should be three, harrumph) this season.

Advanced Stats

K-State Offense vs. Texas Defense

You’re probably tired of hearing me say this, but nothing much is going to change until (unless) K-State’s wide receivers start catching the ball more consistently. Estimates vary, but the Wildcats’ receivers have dropped as many as 10 passes in the last two games. Catching even half of those would significantly boost the offense’s effectiveness, both with the yards gained and the respect defenses pay to the downfield threat.

In the run game, we have relative strength-on-strength by Success Rate. K-State’s success mostly comes via the quarterback run game this year, which probably won’t change unless the receivers start catching passes. And it’s not a sustainable strategy, as Ertz probably can’t continue to take 20+ hits like he did in the Vanderbilt game.

We already know what we need to see in the passing game. Texas is a top-50 unit by Success Rate, but below average in preventing big plays. If the offensive line can protect Ertz and we can find some success on the ground, there may be opportunities off play-action. That said, it’s not something K-State has effectively made work yet this year.

K-State Defense vs. Texas Offense

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck is under fire from Texas fans for poor use of personnel and schematic issues. A big problem is the aforementioned injuries and transfers on the offensive line. Texas is unlikely to move the ball consistently on the ground against K-State’s top-10 Rushing Success Rate defense. Big plays have been somewhat of a problem for K-State, but Texas languishes in the bottom quartile nationally in creating big plays on the ground.

The Longhorns are barely a top-90 offense throwing the ball by both Success Rate and IsoPPP. K-State is, of course, not very good at stopping every-down success, but better at preventing big plays. Note that’s better relatively, not good. Preventing scores off big plays and forcing Buechele or Ehlinger to make plays over and over will be crucial to winning this game.

Conclusion

Offense will probably be in short supply this weekend. Neither offense is particularly good at anything. K-State may be able to get things going if Ertz can complete some passes, but that’s a huge question. Texas’ defense is about as good as Vanderbilt’s by S&P+, so I’m not especially optimistic.

In a game like this, the result will probably come down to big plays. Can K-State keep Collin Johnson in check? Can DJ Reed break a kickoff or punt for a touchdown? Will Kendall Adams or Duke Shelley, or DeShon Elliott or Holton Hill, step in front of a pass and take it the other way for a defensive score?

Those are the kinds of plays that will probably make or break this game. On nothing more than blind optimism, I’ll predict that K-State makes one or two of those plays to steal a tough win in Austin.

Wildcats 20, Longhorns 17