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November 21, 2013

Game Up Close: Doing it again?

On the road to a 10-0 record and No. 1 ranking in the BCS Standings last season, perhaps the biggest and most surprising victory for Kansas State was its triumph in Norman, Okla., when the Wildcats became the first ranked team to beat a Bob Stoops-coached squad on its home field.

The victory sent a message to the nation that the Wildcats were a force to be reckoned with in the national title race and quarterback Collin Klein was a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

In near-freezing conditions Saturday morning, the teams will meet once again. And despite this meeting featuring lesser implications than a year ago, the Sooners have K-State's full attention regardless.

Oklahoma's running backs have done an admirable job of picking up the slack while OU has searched for answers at the quarterback position. The Sooners gouged Iowa State for 405 yards rushing last week. Damien Williams, who leads OU in rushes and touchdowns, will reportedly miss the game. So will OU dual-threat quarterback Blake Bell. K-State has been much better at stopping the run as of late, but the expected absence of safety Ty Zimmerman, and the possible absence of defensive tackle Travis Britz, gives the Wildcats their own challenges at stopping Brennan Clay and Roy Finch at the edges. Without knowing how either team will handle their injuries, neither has a large advantage.
Slight Advantage: Oklahoma
Oklahoma's defense has been decimated by injuries, especially along the line of scrimmage. While replacements have done a serviceable job for the most part, preparing for K-State's offense is an entirely different challenge. Daniel Sams should have no problem getting inexperienced defenders to bite on his wild moves in the open field. John Hubert will be relied upon to compliment Sams. Don't be surprised to see a few more designed running plays for Jake Waters, too, as K-State tries to control the clock. As long as the Wildcats protect the ball, success on the ground should be expected.
Advantage: K-State
Had this meeting occurred a week ago, the Wildcats would have an advantage in this category, but Zimmerman's injury makes it a toss-up. OU's quarterback situation is as turbulent as the Wildcats' was early in the season, and Blake Bell will miss the game with a concussion. Freshman Trevor Knight, who has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season, will get the start. Still, the Sooners' receivers are nothing if not athletic, and K-State's secondary showed signs of weakness after Zimmerman's departure against TCU. The Wildcats can earn an edge back if their linebackers play well in short pass coverage situations.
Advantage: Push
The Sooners hold opposing quarterbacks to an average of 182 passing yards per game, which ranks second in the conference. Some of this can probably be blamed on OU's weaker rush defense. K-State's passing attack has taken major strides in the last month, but has done so in quite comfortable conditions. Temperatures in Manhattan may not break 35 degrees during Saturday's game. Without knowing how Jake Waters will handle that element, and factoring in Oklahoma's experience in the secondary, the edge here has to go to the Sooners. The mistakes TCU made on K-State's long touchdowns last week will probably not happen again.
Slight Advantage: Oklahoma
In a game likely to be dominated by extended, time-consuming drives, field position will be very important. K-State punter Mark Krause has developed into a dependable weapon for games like this. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's punting game has been notoriously poor, ranking last in the league. With threats like Tramaine Thompson and Tyler Lockett in the kick return game, the edge here has to go to the Wildcats. Plus, Jack Cantele's confidence is through the roof.
Advantage: K-State
K-State is the hotter team entering Saturday's contest, but the Sooners have some momentum of their own after dominating the second half of a blowout win over Iowa State. Morning kickoffs typically favor the road team, and Oklahoma hasn't lost in Manhattan in 17 years. Additionally, the Sooners have not forgotten what happened when these teams met a year ago. Expect OU to be ready to play against a K-State squad that may still be emotionally drained from last week's thriller.
Slight Advantage: Oklahoma

"The thing you always know about Oklahoma is that they'll play hard and play smart," K-State coach Bill Snyder said. "They'll be competitive and the game will mean a great deal to them. It'll mean a great deal to us as well.

"Regardless of the outcome of previous ballgames, they'll compete every bit as much, even if they haven't lost those games the year before."

K-State (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) has won four straight and clinched a bowl bid with a dramatic 33-31 victory over TCU a week ago. Jack Cantele's field goal with three seconds left sent the west sideline at Bill Snyder Family Stadium into frenzy. But K-State players say they've moved on to the next challenge.

"At Monday's practice, there was still a lot of intensity," quarterback Daniel Sams said. "We're not getting complacent. I can still see that we want to grow. Each week is a new opponent and a new approach."

The "new opportunity" this week comes in the form of ending another of Oklahoma's impressive streaks. The Sooners have not lost in Manhattan since 1996.

Despite a solid 8-2 record and being ranked No. 20 in the BCS Standings, optimism in Norman right now is limited to say the least. After a 5-0 start put the Sooners in the national title discussion, OU dropped two of its next four contests while seeing the offense sputter under quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight.

Oklahoma bounced back last week with a 48-10 victory over lowly Iowa State.

"They're a good team and they have a lot of tradition," K-State fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. "Where I'm from, everyone knows about them. They're a tough team. It's always difficult for anyone to get a win against them. We have to play disciplined and we have to play tough."

Oklahoma's rushing attack is one of the league's best. The Sooners rolled up 405 yards on the ground last week. But OU will be without Bell, running back Damien Williams and receiver LaColtan Bester against the Wildcats due to a concussion and suspensions, respectively.

Those three players are responsible for over one-third of Oklahoma's yards from scrimmage this season.

Snyder said the Sooners' depth makes them difficult to prepare for, particularly in the running game.

"They have three tremendous running backs, and you add the quarterback to that, and all of them are very fine athletes," Snyder said. "Probably the defining factor in addition to that is that they have five returning offensive linemen starters who are all big, physical and athletic."

Knight, a freshman who is expected to start, has completed just 47.6 percent of his passes this season, but he's averaging 8.4 yards per carry when asked to hold on to the ball. He completed 8 of 14 passes against Iowa State for 61 yards.

K-State has been much better at stopping the run of late, but the anticipated absence of safety Ty Zimmerman will present an additional challenge for the Wildcats to overcome. Cornerback Dante Barnett said OU might use the run to set up long pass plays.

"(Oklahoma's running backs) are very athletic, and their play-action pass is very good," he said. "You can't be too aggressive against the running game. They have a lot of good receivers who can go and make plays."

On the offensive side of the ball, K-State will seek to continue its improved play using both Sams and Jake Waters.

"It feels good to see where we've come from," Sams said of K-State's win streak. "Even though we don't have a chance to win the Big 12, it still feels good to see all of your teammates give it their all to win out the rest of the season."

Oklahoma's defense dealt with numerous injuries early in the season, but replacements have done a serviceable job. Linebacker Frank Shannon leads the team with 72 tackles behind an inexperienced but athletic defensive line.

The Sooners' run defense ranks moderately in the Big 12, but its pass defense is arguably the best. Sams said his team will not be intimidated.

"I have so much confidence in myself and the team, it doesn't matter who we're playing against," he said. "We don't feel intimidated by anybody."

Conditions at game time, 34 degrees with considerable wind, will be the coldest either team has faced this season. Snyder said he doesn't think his team will be affected by such factors.

"That's not cold," he said. "It is Kansas. Our guys are accustomed to that. We stay outside when we get to this time in the season; we don't go inside. They're used to it."

Sams said his coach has addressed this issue in practice.

"Even under those conditions, Coach Snyder still stresses that we're going to do what we do," Sams said. "As long as we execute and show up to play, the weather shouldn't be a factor."

K-State is expected to be favored over the Sooners for the first time since 2000. Linebacker Jonathan Truman admitted there has been some added enthusiasm around Vanier Football Complex this week.

"There's always an excitement for Oklahoma week," he said. "You know you're going to get a hard-nosed, tough football team. It's always a challenge and it's a good challenge."

Senior Day festivities will get underway around 11 a.m. K-State has not lost on Senior Day since 2009.

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