*Note: All statistical ratings are S&P+ unless otherwise noted.
Tuneup time is over. After posting 55-19 and 55-7 wins over Central Arkansas and Charlotte, K-State faces a road trip against an SEC opponent.
The Vanderbilt Commodores opened the season with two similar tuneups, though Middle Tennessee State’s offense would quibble with that characterization. The ‘Dores shut down the Blue Raiders in Murfreesboro, limiting a top-50 offense in 2016 to 251 yards on 3.8 yards per play. Last week, Vandy suffocated thoroughly overmatched Alabama A&M’s offense in a 42-0 win. The Bulldogs managed only 103 total yards for the game.
It’s early for any statistical measure, of course. MTSU scored 30 points against Syracuse last week, though the Orange rate only 59th defensively. In other words, we have some hints about each team’s ability, but no proof of concept against peer competition.
Players to Watch
Passing: Jesse Ertz, 26-37-0, 511 yards, 70.3% completion, 13.8 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 255.5 yards/game
Rushing: Alex Barnes, 25 carries, 128 yards, 5.1 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 64.0 yards/game
Receiving: Isaiah Harris, 5 receptions, 138 yards, 27.6 yards/reception, 1 TD, 69.0 yards/game
Passing: Kyle Shurmur, 35-46-0, 498 yards, 76.1% completion, 10.8 yards/attempt, 7 TDs, 249.0 yards/game
Rushing: Ralph Webb, 37 carries, 103 yards, 2.8 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 51.5 yards/game
Receiving: Trent Sherfield, 8 receptions, 137 yards, 17.1 yards/reception, 1 TD, 68.5 yards/game
The game narrative will almost certainly be the quarterback battle, as both Ertz and Shurmur have posted impressive numbers. Ertz also is a threat on the ground, with 20 carries for 111 yards (5.6 yards/carry) this season, and that’s not adjusted for sacks. Shurmur has two carries for -5 yards on the season.
Backup running back Khari Blasingame has been more impressive than Webb in fewer carries, toting 14 times for 86 yards (6.1 yards/carry). Six of those carries and 55 of those yards came against Alabama A&M, which may distort the production somewhat. Regardless, Webb is in the SEC’s top 20 for career rushing yards, more because he’s been a workhorse since his freshman year than because his per-carry average (4.4 yards/carry for his career) is that impressive. Also, he may very well end up exceeding 1,000 carries in his career. Ouch.
Sherfield profiles as a prolific possession receiver, if that makes sense. He’s averaging 17.1 yards per reception, and his longest reception on the year is 25 yards. That’s impressively consistent output. Four different Vandy receivers have touchdown receptions on the season, with Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb hitting paydirt five times combined. Webb is also a threat out of the backfield, with a 73-yard touchdown reception this season.
On special teams, kicker Tommy Openshaw has missed both his field goal attempts this season, from 31 and 56 yards. For K-State, Matthew McCrane is 4-5 on the season, with a long make of 53 yards.
Kicking power isn’t the problem for Vandy, with 10 touchbacks in 12 kickoffs this season. That could go a long way toward neutralizing DJ Reed and K-State’s potent special teams. Touchbacks may be long in supply Saturday, as K-State’s Mitch Lochbihler has nine in 14 attempts.
‘Dores Punter Sam Loy averages 41 yards per punt, and has somehow punted 10 times in two blowout wins. Nick Walsh and Lochbihler have combined for three punts and a 41.3 yard average.
Defensively, linebacker Emmanuel Smith leads Vandy with 16 tackles. Smith also has 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack in 2017. Outside linebacker Charles Wright is the most disruptive force, tallying four sacks and 4.5 TFL. Three Vandy defenders have one interception each.
Safety Kendall Adams leads K-State with 13 tackles this season. Cornerback DJ Reed has contributed two TFL, while four different players have one sack each. Adams, Reed and nickel back Cre Moore each have an interception.
K-State Offense vs. Vanderbilt Defense
Head coach Derek Mason made his name as Stanford’s defensive coordinator before taking over at Vanderbilt. He employs a disruptive, multiple-front defense that leads S&P+ in Havoc Rate. K-State’s young offensive linemen face a big test against the Commodores.
In the running game, the unstoppable force meets the unmovable object. K-State is third nationally in Rushing Success Rate, but runs into Vandy’s defense, which is eighth nationally by the same metric. As we often see with disruptive defenses, the ‘Dores are prone to the big play, ranking only 117th in Rushing IsoPPP. K-State is only average at creating big plays, but there may be some opportunities this week.
The passing matchup looks a lot the same. K-State has been ultra-efficient, ranking fourth in Passing Success Rate. But Vandy has been ultra-disruptive (see a pattern here?), ranking second nationally. The Commodores aren’t bad at preventing big plays (31st Passing IsoPPP), and K-State has been pretty explosive in the passing game (21st). Can Ertz find Zuber, Harris or Heath for big gains?
Of note, K-State’s offensive line has been much better at preventing sacks so far this season. That may still be somewhat competition based, but their standard-down and passing-down sack rates are first nationally. That’s good, because Vanderbilt ranks second and 18th by those same metrics.
Once a scoring opportunity arises, K-State is a top-25 team at scoring points on trips inside the 40. But Vanderbilt’s defense is top 10 by the same measure. This is another critical area. Can K-State punch it in, or will they have to rely on McCrane?
K-State Defense vs. Vanderbilt Offense
You’re tired of hearing me say this by now, but K-State is just about the perfect encapsulation of a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Overall, the Wildcats are 112th nationally in Success Rate, but 19th in IsoPPP. Yards are there for the taking between the 20s, but big plays are typically in short supply.
That’s less true in the run game, where the Wildcats are 101st nationally in Rushing IsoPPP, and only 98th in Rushing Success Rate. Vanderbilt is modestly efficient running the ball (30th), but is nearly the least-explosive team in the country on the ground (127th). This is an area K-State must win.
The BDB philosophy is more clearly illustrated in the passing game. K-State is the top defense by Passing IsoPPP, but near the basement at 120th in Passing Success Rate. Shurmur’s completion percentage likely won’t take much of a hit this weekend. The key for the Wildcats will be lowering his per-attempt average and clamping down on scoring opportunities (trips inside the 40).
Speaking of scoring opportunities, K-State is only average at finishing drives on defense, 54th nationally in points-per-trip inside the 40. Vanderbilt has been a top-quartile team by that same metric. K-State needs to put the burden on Openshaw to make some kicks.
Early-season games where two teams match strength for strength so well are difficult to predict. How will K-State’s young-ish offensive line handle Vanderbilt’s multiple fronts? Last season, Ertz and the offensive line were bogged down by West Virginia’s aggressive defense. That’s quite a while ago, but how much progress have the Wildcats made there?
There are still plenty of questions for K-State’s defense to answer, but Vanderbilt’s offense has been pretty one-dimensional thus far. It’s difficult to imagine the Commodores sustaining an effective rushing attack against K-State if they couldn’t against Middle Tennessee State (118th in Defensive S&P+) and Alabama A&M. If it happens, it will be disastrous. Will Geary and Trey Dishon should be able to hold the middle, so keep an eye on linebackers Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby. Saturday will be their proving ground.
One area of particular concern could be kickoffs. Vanderbilt may be able to neutralize K-State’s vaunted kick return game with touchbacks, rather than short kicks to other return men. If that’s the case, then K-State may lose its usual field-position advantage, not to mention the possibility of a game-changing score on special teams.
This game is a litmus test for K-State’s season. If this team is as good as some of us hope, then they should be able to grind out a workmanlike win. But anything less than a fully focused effort leaves them open to an upset by a team dying to snag a defining out-of-conference victory.
Wildcats 34, Commodores 24