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Sugar Bowl Preview: When Kansas State has the Ball

How will Alabama’s defense hold up vs the Wildcats’ attack?

NCAA Football: Big 12 Football Championship-Texas Christian at Kansas State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 champions may have taken a few losses earlier this season, the the Kansas State Wildcats have been red hot since November, rattling off 4 straight wins over Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas, and TCU after a loss to Texas. And they blew out #9 (at the time) Oklahoma State with a ridiculous 48-0 score the week before that.

They’re averaging 33 points per game, but the number has shot up to 39 points per game over their last 6 games.

Offensive coordinator Collin Klein (man, I feel old... still vividly remember his Heisman campaign) is in his sort-of first year as the OC for coach Chris Klieman. Klein actually started as a QB coach for the previous coaching staff under Bill Snyder and became a Co-OC in 2018. When Klieman was hired, Klein was retained, but only as QB coach again. After a couple of seasons in that role, Klein was again promoted to OC this year, and it’s paid dividends for the Wildcats.

His scheme is fairly similar to what we saw Alabama run with Lane Kiffin in 2015 with Jake Coker at QB. There’s a lot of WR screens and jet sweeps mixed in with vertical route concepts. The difference, of course, being that Kansas State doesn’t have a 245-pound Derrick Henry in the run game... Instead they have the 5’6” 170 Deuce Vaughn.

But don’t let that size fool you, Vaughn has eclipsed 1400 rushing yards and 1800 total yards in both of the last two seasons, with 33 touchdowns in two years. He’s small, but he’s fast, tough, balanced, and has a natural feel for slipping through holes, hitting cutbacks, and breaking big plays. And good luck even touching him in the open field.

Backing him up is DJ Giddens, a 200-lb “power” back who is, in my opinion, a very underrated inside rusher. He runs tough, decisive, and rarely gets stonewalled by his own blockers. He’s got 5.6 yards per carry and 6 touchdowns on his 80 carries.

The Kansas State gameplan is, first and foremost, give the ball to Deuce. They work a lot of pulling guard power concepts to get him a train of blockers downfield and around the edge to work behind as he can weave in and out of vertically spaced blockers with ease.

Then they mix in WR sweeps and screens to keep defenses from keying in too much on the pulling linemen, and eventually turn those repeated short yardage gains into getting defenses to commit more to the lines, and then they go DEEP.

QB Will Howard took over from Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez (got hurt in November), and the 6’5” 250 lb QB has a howitzer of an arm and he absolutely loves using it. Howard’s only at 61% completion rate, but he has 1423 yards on his 101 completions with 15 touchdowns to only two picks... And all of that has been in 6 games.

If there’s a single high safety, Will is going to launch it. And if there’s bracketed two-high? He still might launch it. Now, he’s prone to the occasional risky overthrow across the middle and down the seams, but he’s also going to make one or two throws per game that leaves defenders scratching their heads and Kansas State fans celebrating.

He’s not the most mobile guy in the pocket, and usually gets sacked if a defender gets close to him. If he’s pressured, he’s most likely going to fling it deep first, and if he can’t get that off, he’ll get taken to the ground. That said, once Howard does decide to scramble into open field, he can cover a lot of ground quickly and truck a defender going for the sticks.

Now, Adrian Martinez is rumored to possibly be able to make it back for the bowl game. He’s a much smaller, quicker QB who’s an excellent rusher and more of a west coast scheme QB that throws short and quick. Considering that most of the Wildcats’ offensive success has come since Howard took over, I think we can officially consider Martinez to have been Wally Pipp’d, even if he is ready to go.

At receiver, 6’3” Malik Knowles is the team leader down the field with 719 yards at 15.3 yards per catch, and he also leads the group in jet sweeps, with 162 rushing yards. Seniors Kade Warner and Phillip Brooks are also regular screen targets and can make guys miss in short yardage.

You also have to factor Vaughn into the passing game as well, as he’ll often split out to slot receiver and run legit routes downfield. He’s a terror down the seam with his speed and will run option routes like he thinks he’s Wes Welker.

And then there’s TE Ben Sinnott. He’s a hybrid fullback that often lines up in the backfield and swings around on all kinds of funky lead blocks. And then he’s probably the most reliable receiver on the team. He’s got 400 yards at 14.3 yards per catch. He just gets open 15 yards down the field on 3rd downs over and over and over again, and usually falls down over his tackler for another 3 yards.

I worry a lot about this offense for Alabama’s defense, to be honest. Auburn and Ole Miss ran up and down the field against the Tide’s front-seven, and Kansas State is likely a better rushing team than both. There’s going to be a lot riding on the defensive line (D.J. Dale, Jaheim Oatis, Byron Young, and Tim Smith) to prevent the pulling guards from getting upfield and blocking the linebacker crew. If To’oTo’o is constantly being blocked by 310 pounds guards, it’s going to be a very, very, long day.

On the other hand, I like the Tide’s chances if they can limit the rushing attack and force Kansas State to win by passing the ball. Howard will hit a couple of nice throws down the field, but I think he’s prone to falter against a dedicated pass rush if Will Anderson and crew are able to really tee off on the passer and not worry so much about the run game.

Can the Alabama defensive front step up? Or will they get manballed into a poor showing? I’m not particularly confident in either direction right now.

Let’s go with 27 points for the Wildcats. But I could very well see it going anywhere between 13 points and 38.