Before we begin, a brief personal note. As I sit down to write this on the opening Thursday night of college football season, it occurs to me that I’ve been writing game previews for 11 years on this site. That’s more than a little difficult to believe.
K-State faces a familiar season-opening opponent. The Wildcats played the South Dakota Coyotes in 2015’s season opener. If you haven’t managed to block the memory of 2015 from your mind yet, then here’s a quick refresher: new starter Jesse Ertz blew out his knee on the first play from scrimmage and K-State needed a miracle against West Virginia in the regular-season finale to get bowl eligible.
South Dakota is in a different place as a program these days. As of the 2015 season opener, the Coyotes had won only seven total games in the previous three seasons. Even with Ertz’s injury, K-State won easily behind Joe Hubener, 34-0. In 2018, USD comes to Manhattan after making the second round of the FCS playoffs last season.
Players to Watch
Passing: Skylar Thompson, 51-83-3, 61.4%, 689 yards, 8.3 yards/attempt, 5 TDs, 86.1 yards/game
Rushing: Alex Barnes, 146 carries, 819 yards, 5.6 yards/carry, 7 TDs, 63 yards/game
Receiving: Isaiah Zuber, 51 receptions, 510 yards, 10.0 yards/reception, 4 TDs, 39.2 yards/game
Passing: Austin Simmons, 17-28-0, 60.7%, 197 yards, 7.0 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 24.6 yards/game
Rushing: Michael Fredrick, 143 carries, 705 yards, 4.9 yards/carry, 7 TDs, 54.2 yards/game
Receiving: Shamar Jackson, 53 receptions, 766 yards, 14.5 yards/reception, 4 TDs, 58.9 yards/game
South Dakota lost dual-threat quarterback Chris Streveler to graduation last year. Streveler led the Coyotes in both passing and rushing last season, amassing 4,854 yards and 43 touchdowns by himself. Austin Simmons appeared in eight games and threw only 28 passes on the season. Simmons looks like another dual threat; he had 80 rushing yards on 13 carries last season.
The Coyotes lost three of their top four receiving threats last year, but return their leading receiver by receptions last year in Shamar Jackson. The senior from Florida is only 5’9” and 160 lbs., but he was Streveler’s security blanket. Interestingly, he scored only four touchdowns, probably a result of his lack of height. But make no mistake, Jackson will be a strong first test for Duke Shelley and the rest of the K-State defensive backfield.
On defense, leading tackler Andrew Gray returns for USD. The senior safety with the long, golden locks, had 89 total tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack last season. The third-leading tackler from last season, Phillip Powell, also a safety, also from Illinois, and also with awesome hair, also returns. Powell tallied 64 total tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and a sack.
Last year’s most-disruptive defender, defensive end Darin Greenfield, is also back. The 6’3”, 240-lb. defensive end had 19.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks last year. The other defensive end, Kameron Cline, also returns, though he had a much quieter statistical season last year. This will be a good first test for Dalton Risner and Scott Frantz.
At linebacker, Alex Coker is back after 61 tackles last season. He also had 6.0 tackles for loss and a couple sacks last season.
Overall, the Coyotes were plus-nine in turnover margin last year. They forced 22 total turnovers, including 15 interceptions and seven fumbles in 13 games.
South Dakota is not a team to take lightly. This is decidedly not the North Dakota State machine that came to Manhattan in 2013 and left with a win, but the defense especially will be a good first test for K-State.
We still don’t know who will start at quarterback for K-State, but I’m working with the unfounded assumption that it will be Skylar Thompson. If the coaches decide that Thompson’s full skill set earns him the starting nod, then he likely raises the ceiling for this offense. He’s a decidedly more-polished passer than Alex Delton, completing better than 60 percent for more than eight yards per attempt last year. Those numbers are getting up into Jake Waters territory.
He will need someone to step up at receiver, with Isaiah Zuber the most-likely candidate. Receiver will be a position to watch given new offensive coordinator Andre Coleman’s history as a receiver’s coach. There’s been some noise about using dynamic running back Dalvin Warmack some at receiver, too. With Thompson’s accuracy, the possibilities abound.
In the running game, the entire offensive line and running backs Alex Barnes and Warmack return. It seemed a little quiet at times, but Barnes averaged a solid 5.6 yards per carry last season. And if Thompson is a sufficiently willing runner to prevent defenses from overplaying Barnes, then this offense could really hum.
Defensively, K-State is probably best-equipped to limit a waterbug receiver like Jackson. Simmons’ profile as a solid dual-threat is a concern for a green defensive line and linebacking corps. We will find out early how disciplined Reggie Walker and Kyle Ball are at end, as well as linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Da’Quan Patton.
After everything we’ve heard the last few years about checked-out coordinators, and the palpable lack of excitement on the sideline, maybe the biggest thing I want to see this season is a team that plays with a little fire. At this point, there’s no serious argument that Dana Dimel and Tom Hayes were less-than-inspiring figures in the locker room. But the players have to take some amount of ownership and get each other motivated to play.
With experience and talent at three of the position groups on offense, and a defense that’s a few solid answers short of being pretty good, this is one of those seasons where the merry-go-round that is college football could land on purple. In a wide-open Big 12, a slightly-better-than-expected K-State could win 10 games and play in Arlington in December. But if that’s the case, then this team needs to come out of the tunnel on Saturday evening and run the Coyotes out of town early. Bill Connelly projects a 35-23 win. If anything similar to that happens, then bowl eligibility may be about the biggest accomplishment this year.
Let’s think positively.
Wildcats 45, Coyotes 10