Know Your Opponent: Running game key in matchup against KU

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Senior running back Harry trotter runs through a gap in the defense. The Wildcats beat the Red Raiders 31-21 on Fort Riley Day at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group).

The Wildcats look to extend their win streak over rival Kansas to 12 straight wins on Saturday when the Jayhawks visit Manhattan. The last time Kansas beat Kansas State in football was during former head coach Ron Prince’s final year in Manhattan.

At head coach for Kansas is Les Miles, who formerly coached at Oklahoma State and LSU. He is in his second season at KU and has shown little improvement in Lawrence with a depleted and very young roster.

Kansas is in the middle of a youth movement. Juniors and seniors make up the starters, but man young contributors are behind them on the depth chart. Miles is trying to grow the program through depth, which is a slow process but can be effective.

The Jayhawks’ offense possesses talent at the skill positions. Senior wide receiver Andrew Parchment is an athletic target at 6-foot-2 and sophomore running back Velton Gardner is serviceable, but not a replacement for junior running back Pooka Williams, who opted out of the remainder of the season.

The problem for KU’s spread run offense is at the quarterback position and offensive line. Frankly, the line struggled to open up holes for Williams against West Virginia and the Jayhawks do not have a game changer distributing the ball to make up for it.

Kansas’ depth chart for this week list three quarterbacks with an “or” between their names. That means that none of them are the starter. Miles hinted in his weekly press conference Kansas may play all three or some combination of them — and that will likely be the case.

It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon does without Williams. His offense used Williams as a feature back in traditional run game as well as a receiving and screen pass threat.

The spread is all about creating horizontal space for athletic players to run into with the ball, and Gardner is not as effective as Williams in the run and screen pass game.

West Virginia held the Jayhawks to just 17 points. Each of the two scoring drives started around midfield and a kick return from Williams generated the third touchdown.

The Kansas defense is the worst in the conference in terms of points allowed and rushing defense. They have the worst total defense — yards per game — in Big 12 Conference play.

The Jayhawks’ 3-4 defense does have talent at the linebacker position with junior Dru Prox holding down the weak side and senior Denzel Feaster in the middle.

The defensive line, on the other hand, does a poor job of getting in the backfield. Not a single Jayhawk sits in the Top 20 of the Big 12 in sacks and Prox has the 18th most tackles for loss, the only Jayhawk in the top-20.

The Jayhawks have forced only two turnovers this season, both of which were against West Virginia last week.

West Virginia struggled on offense until they decided to run the ball. Expect a lot of carries for freshman running back Deuce Vaughn and senior Harry Trotter this week.

KEY MATCHUPS

Stoppable force, moveable object.

The Wildcats convert only a quarter of their third downs while allowing their opponents to convert 45 percent, good for ninth in the conference in both categories. Kansas sits just behind them, converting 21 percent while giving up 49 percent.

Third down offense and defense are key stats. If a team cannot force punts or maintain possession, they will struggle. Whoever can execute better on third down will have an advantage on Saturday.

Quarterback?

Freshman Will Howard is a question mark under center for K-State. He can distribute the ball effectively, but he needs to develop his accuracy and pocket instincts.

Howard had a bye week to grow within the offense and will likely not get a ton of pressure from Kansas, so he may have a big day.

On the other sideline, freshman Jalon Daniels, junior Miles Kendrick and senior Thomas MacVittie all struggled at times this year. Dearmon will have his hands full trying to figure out how to get the ball to his skill position players without a reliable quarterback.

Return of the wide-outs.

K-State’s wide receiver corps is mostly silent thus far, ceding a lot of the passing game to Vaughn and senior tight end Briley Moore.

While Howard will still need to get the ball to Vaughn and Moore for big plays and possession-type receptions, respectively, he will also have time to set his feet and push the ball downfield to his receivers.

PREDICTION: KU is going to struggle to move the ball and protect their quarterbacks. Without their biggest offensive weapon, K-State’s defense will live in the Jayhawk backfield. The Wildcat offense might struggle too, but the run game will push them through. K-State wins 38-14.

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Nathan Enserro
Hi! I'm Nathan Enserro, a graduate student from Olathe, Kansas, working on a Masters in Mass Communication. I graduated in spring 2020 with a Bachelor's of Science in strategic communications from K-State. This is my fourth year covering K-State sports for the Collegian.