The clock is ticking down to Saturday’s Sugar Bowl. The underdog Wildcats (currently +6.5 on Draft Kings) face off against the legendary Alabama Crimson Tide. We’ve got a match-up featuring the former “Futility U” Wildcats vs the 18 time National Champions. The on paper talent discrepancy between the Big12 Champs and the SEC West runners up is vast, but K-State hasn’t played a single game on paper this season.
Alabama’s defense is loaded with 4 and 5 star talent, but this isn’t a vintage Nick Saban defense. The Vols put up 52 points in a win and LSU put up 32 in a victory that knocked Bama out of the SEC Championship Game. This defense is still populated by monsters, but they’re not invincible. It’s up to Collin Klein and company to find places to attack Pete Golding’s occasionally vulnerable defense. There are 3 key matchups I think the ‘Cats can exploit Saturday afternoon.
Kansas State Offensive Line vs Alabama Interior Line
For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, Alabama’s defensive line is simply very good instead of otherworldly. The edge is still a horror show, with potential #1 overall pick Will Anderson and his 10 sacks holding down Jack position, but the interior of the line has been exploited this season, especially down the stretch.
Quinshon Judkins of Ole Miss rushed for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns, mostly between the tackles. You don’t often see a back average 5.4 on the Crimson Tide defense. Auburn, despite having a one dimensional run based offense, was even more dominant than Lane’s crew. Running back Jarquez Hunter put up 134 yards on 11 carries, including a 45 yard scamper. Quarterback Robby Ashford ran for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries and Tank Bigsby put up another 63 on 15 attempts. It’s rare to see a back go for over 100 yards on the Tide, but a running back and a quarterback both going over 100 when Saban and Golding’s defense didn’t have to worry about the pass makes me wonder if we’ve slipped into some alternate dimension.
Kansas State’s run game matches up well against the Alabama defense. The general plan is to run away from Will Anderson at all costs. The problem with that strategy is running sideline to sideline against Bama is death. They’ve got speed at every position and are great at stretching plays out and not letting backs get the corner.
Running away from Anderson doesn’t necessary mean you have to run outside. I expect to see the ‘Cats use their mobile offensive linemen to double team interior Tide linemen and then climb to the next level and try to hunt down inside linebacker Henry To’oTo’o. To’oTo’o is a stud, but he’s not the physical middle linebacker most people associate with Bama. If you can get a body on him, he has a hard time getting off blocks. That bodes well for the K-State offensive line.
Look for Hayden Gillum and Hadley Panzer to work double teams on Bama nose tackle D.J. Dale, with Panzer coming off and looking for To’oTo’o at the next level. The interior of the K-State line is one of the most athletic in the nation. You don’t see many centers and guards that can move like Gillum and Panzer. If they can get into the second level of the Bama defense, they can cause trouble.
Quick hitting interior runs have also bothered Alabama. If Collin Klein want to bust a quick hitter to Deuce look for him to try the left A gap. I don’t care how big you are, if Cooper Beebe hits you, you move. I like the Gillum/Beebe double on the Bama nose, with Cooper trying to get a quick seal and movement on the nose, and Deuce to try and squeeze in behind him before Bama can seal the gap. I’ll take Deuce vs any middle linebacker in the nation in open space, and that’s what Kansas State can get if the manage to spring a quick hitter.
Deuce/Giddens vs Bama Pass Defense
The Texas film will be of great interest to Coach Klein. The Longhorns managed to free up Bijan Robinson for 3 catches and 75 yards. Two of those passes don’t matter (1 yard comp, 30 yard comp on last play of game), but right before the half, Texas managed to get Robinson matched up one on one with Alabama outside linebacker Dallas Turner. With a little better pass, it goes for 6 instead of 42 yards.
That’s a matchup I expect Klein to look for with Deuce or D.J.. When you attack the Tide defense deep, you can occasionally get an advantageous matchup for your running back. I actually like D.J. more than Deuce in this scenario. Texas used multiple backs/tight ends early in the game, and it bothered the Bama defense. If you can get everyone looking at Deuce, slipping D.J. out the back door for a long completion isn’t out of the question.
LSU also exploited the right side of the Alabama defense for their first touchdown. Bama brought a blitz off the right side, and instead of picking it up, LSU back John Emery slipped it and found himself wide open, Tiger quarterback Jayden Daniels stood in the pocket and got the pass off right before getting crushed. Emery did the rest. Will Howard isn’t afraid to take a big hit to make a big play. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a back slip a blitz pick up and hope Will can get it out in time.
K-State Receivers vs Everyone Other Than Kool-Aid
Tennessee's Jalen Hyatt put up 5 receiving touchdowns vs Bama. They all had 1 thing in common, the player he was running past was not Kool-Aid Mckinstry. Not only does Kool-Aid have an awesome name, he’s also an elite player. His stats don’t look impressive. He has 34 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception. That’s because teams avoid him like the plague.
This Bama defense is weird, because it funnels you away from Will Anderson (always run away from Will) and Kool-Aid (always throw away from Kool-Aid) but the step down from those two players is larger than I’ve seen from Bama. They’ve had dominant players you had to avoid in the past, but that generally meant you ran away from a consensus All-American and towards a first team All-SEC defender. Or you had to throw away from a top 10 NFL draft pick and towards a top 15 corner or safety.
It’s not like that in the Bama secondary this year. Teams have managed to throw away from Mckinstry and have found success against the other Bama corners and safeties. I expect Coach Klein to move Malik around. If McKinstry follows, then Howard knows where not to look. If he stays, Malik is in play. In a way, it makes the quarterbacks job easier. Find Kool-Aid pre snap, make sure he stays on his side of the field, and read the opposite side. The Wildcats lack an elite receiver like Hyatt, but they trust all 3 starting receivers. You can’t take one receiver out of the game, because Howard has no issue throwing it to Warner or Brooks.
This is one of the more vulnerable Bama defenses I’ve seen recently. Tennessee beat them with the pass. Auburn and Ole Miss beat them with the run game. They couldn’t figure out a way to stop LSU’s Jayden Daniels. When you’re vulnerable in one area, it’s easy to devote extra resources to shore up that area. When you’re vulnerable in multiple areas, you have to make tough choices.
Kansas State has the type of balanced offense that could give Bama issues. If they commit to stopping the run game, Howard and company are comfortable throwing the ball. If they commit to stopping the passing game, Deuce will run wild.
Beating Bama is still a monumental task. One on one, their guys are bigger, faster, and stronger than the vast majority of your guys, but the ‘Cats have a path forward in this game on offense. It’s a narrow path, but that’s better than the brick wall former Bama teams have brought to the table.