PREVIEW: Football hosts Oklahoma State, attempts to keep conference championship hopes alive

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Then-junior defensive back AJ Parker makes a tackle during the game against Oklahoma State at Boone Pickens Stadium on Sept. 29, 2019. In their last meeting, the Wildcats struggled against the Cowboys. (Archive Photo by Sabrina Cline | Collegian Media Group)

The Wildcat football team returns home to face off with the Oklahoma State Cowboys in a matchup that could decide the fate of the Big 12 Conference. Both teams are currently tied atop the conference and are coming off losses at the hands of unranked opponents.

Freshman quarterback Will Howard suffered his first loss as a Kansas State starter on the road last week against West Virginia. Howard threw for 184 yards and a touchdown, but threw three interceptions, including one that went for a pick-six.

The Mountaineers shut down star freshman running back Deuce Vaughn last weekend with only 22 rushing yards and one yard receiving. Despite that, Vaughn is one of two players with 300 receiving and rushing yards this season, along with Clemson’s senior running back Travis Etienne.

The Oklahoma State offense is a lethal group that poses a threat in multiple ways. In the 41-34 overtime loss to Texas last Saturday, the Cowboys finished with 530 yards of total offense.

Redshirt junior running back Chuba Hubbard dominated the Wildcats last season with 296 rush yards and a touchdown en route to a 26-13 win last season.

“We have to make sure that he doesn’t have a huge day, or everything opens up,” head coach Chris Klieman said on Tuesday. “If he has a huge day, then we’re stacking the box with more and more guys, and then it creates all sorts of other issues.”

The Longhorns managed to limit Hubbard to only 72 rush yards and only 130 yards on the ground.

Oklahoma State holds a 40-26 all-time advantage, but the series is tied at eight apiece since the Big 12 began 25 years ago. This meeting will be the first time since 2017 that the Cowboys are in the Top 15 of the Associated Press college football polls — the unranked Wildcats won 45-40 in Stillwater that season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

There are plenty of offensive weapons to watch for the Cowboys, but none are bigger than senior wide receiver Tylan Wallace. Wallace leads the conference in receiving yards and receptions per game and has four touchdowns on the year. He will be a hassle for the Wildcats all afternoon.

Defensively, the Cowboys lead the Big 12 in sacks with 19 through four games this season and the top-ranked scoring defense allowing only 20.5 points per game. Ten of the 21 sacks on the season have been by linebackers, including senior linebacker Calvin Bundage with four this season. The linebacker will bring the pressure, and the K-State offense needs to be ready.

Senior wide receiver DJ Render is sort of a secret weapon for the Wildcats this season. He found a way to get open in three games and give Will Howard an easy target. Sophomore wide receiver Malik Knowles will get most of the defensive attention, so it will be crucial for Render to find the open field.

Redshirt freshman defensive back Will Jones II could possibly replace senior AJ Parker against the Cowboys. Parker, who missed the final five games last season, was limited in practice this week after sustaining an injury against Kansas. Jones had four tackles in his second start of the year against West Virginia and is a crucial piece of the defense against a team that loves to air it out.

Defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman indicated in the coordinator press conference Thursday that Parker could be ready to play against the Cowboys.

The Wildcats are an early 12.5-point underdog, but Vegas predicts a low scoring game with the over/under being set at 46. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. in Manhattan on Fox and the K-State Sports Radio Network.

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