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November 28, 2013

Game Up Close: Circling in

Thinking and looking back at everything that has happened since Kansas State started its season, and it went by rather quickly, it's hard to fathom this chance even exists. Considering there once was a time when the offense, behind two quarterbacks playing their first significant minutes of FBS football while splitting snaps, couldn't stop turning the ball over in crucial moments and when the defense, with nine new starters, couldn't get off the field on third down, there's just no way. Yet, here the Wildcats are, vying to finish strong.

But while many spent the day in reflection, K-State, 6-5 overall and 4-4 in Big 12 play, used it to look at the great opportunity that lies ahead. Yes, the Wildcats held practice Thanksgiving morning, but it's game week and there is something special at stake come Saturday.

For the first time since the season-opening loss to North Dakota State, the Wildcats were held to less than 100 yards rushing last Saturday against Oklahoma. In fact, the 24 yards on 22 carries was the worst collective performance all season. So coming off such a game, it should surprise absolutely no one that K-State will seek redemption this weekend. Although improved defensively, the Jayhawks still surrender 189 yards per game on the ground, including 202 yards to lowly Iowa State last week. Look for running back John Hubert and quarterback Daniel Sams to have their way with this front seven early and often.
Big Advantage: K-State
As surprising as it was to see the Wildcats struggle so much running the ball last weekend, perhaps the biggest shock was watching Oklahoma run in and around a K-State defense that had been really pretty good throughout 2013. Behind Brennan Clay and quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners used spread formations to exploit the Wildcats for over 300 yards. KU will likely emulate the same game plan in this one with running back James Sims, a 1000-yard rusher, and quarterback Montell Cozart and might have some success early, but the Jayhawks don't have the playmakers on the outside to keep the Wildcats out of the box.
Slight Advantage: K-State
If anyone needed more convincing of just how deadly the combination of quarterback Jake Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett is, last Saturday should be all the proof you need. The duo was deadly, connecting on 12 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns, and similar results should be expected once again as KU gives up nearly 250 yards through the air per game. The Jayhawks have pretty good defensive backs, but if they allowed Grant Rohach to throw for 300 yards, Waters, and even Daniel Sams, could have fun picking this defense apart.
Big Advantage: K-State
Regardless if it's Jake Heaps or Montell Cozart under center, when the top receivers on the season have predominately started plays in the backfield for their careers, there are some major, major problems. Add in the fact that the top target, Tony Pierson, is out, this has all the potential to be a nightmare. By no means is K-State's secondary anything stellar in coverage without free safety Ty Zimmerman, but most of KU's throws have been check downs and that should allow the Wildcats to roam around and make plays.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State had been waiting and waiting for the day to come and it finally happened last weekend. Led by Tyler Lockett, the Wildcats finally got some good kickoff returns once again. Although Lockett didn't take one to the house, there's no reason it can't happen against the Jayhawks. The kicking game wasn't anything special in the cold conditions against the Sooners and KU is solid at punting, but the Wildcats are a much better unit overall right now.
Advantage: K-State
For whatever reason, KU coach Charlie Weis and the Jayhawks have had this game circled since last summer. And after posting a 3-8 record this season, the Jayhawks finally get their shot at the in-state rival to salvage another disappointing. However, this is not a good time to be hosting this K-State team. Coming off a loss on senior day, the Wildcats are angry and, most importantly, ready to keep the Governor's Cup trophy in the Vanier Football Complex for yet another year.
Big Advantage: K-State
That opportunity? To finish the second half of the regular season 5-1 and with a winning record after starting the 2013 campaign 2-4, including a head-scratching loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe North Dakota State and the first three Big 12 Conference games. Remarkable.

"It would be a great feeling knowing that we overcame some adversity early in the season," senior cornerback Kip Daily said. "To get through it, we came together. It was not the easiest, but we've been pushing through, sticking together and just working. It would mean a lot."

"To start the way we started and to hopefully finish 7-5, to finish the way we did, that's big for the type of growing we've done and how we matured," junior quarterback Jake Waters added. "We're really looking forward to getting there and we're going to work as hard as we can to get there."

Numerically, the difference between a 7-5 and 6-6 is slim, but mentally, it would mean a lot to these K-State players and, although he won't publically admit it, to Coach Bill Snyder. So as the Wildcats prepare to face Kansas, 3-8 and 1-7, on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Memorial Stadium, they are mindful of the importance to take care of business heading into postseason play.

"It's big. It's the biggest game for us," Waters explained. "We want to finish out strong going into our bowl game. We don't want to come off two losses. We want to get back on the right track because everyone was feeling food when we were getting those wins like we should.

"We want to taste that again. We tasted a little bit, but now we want to keep it going and taste it again and again."

Luckily, K-State has feasted on Kansas in recent years and the Sunflower Showdown has lacked any sort of luster. And with a Wildcats' team fuming following a 41-31 loss to Oklahoma on Senior Day last weekend, it could be true once again.

"I wouldn't want to be them, but yes, we have a chip on our shoulder with the loss," sophomore quarterback Daniel Sams noted. "We want to have a lot of momentum going into the bowl game so we might just take advantage of them. I'm not being cocky or anything, it's just the truth."

With the Jayhawks struggling mightily across the board, there is some truth to Sams' straightforward comments.

"I have confidence that we can do it all, run or pass," he said. "KU, they're all right in coverage and they're good assignment wise, but I really feel like nobody in the country can matchup with Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. No matter what defensive you're running, if we make the right throws and right decisions, we can really have our way with them."

But for everything recent history and the numbers indicate, Snyder is quick to remind his players the regular-season finale is about taking care of their own business.

"It is about you and it is about your preparation regardless of who you play," the 74-year-old coach said. "The significant thing for us is to go back and make sure that we can review and adequately address the mistakes that we made in the previous ballgame or any mistakes that have been lingering over a period of time. You have to correct those because if you don't, it doesn't make a difference who you play, you are going to end up on the short end.

"That being said, it is a matter of preparation for the upcoming opponent. Whether it is the last game of the season or not, it is the next game. Therefore, it becomes the most significant one that you participate in and the preparation needs to be directed that way."

In the case of Kansas, its record doesn't paint the picture of their improvement, but by no means does K-State want this to even be close.

"Watching them on film, they have some good players," Waters said. "They can play with anyone. They beat West Virginia, they were up on Oklahoma midway through the game so we know they can play and they're going to play their best game against us. We got to come out and really be on our game to make it a game it shouldn't be."

K-State has come too far and overcome so much to let it slip right now. It's time push forward to bigger and better things.

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