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SW&PTW: Kansas State offense dynamic, but is defense susceptible?

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Team: Kansas State

In this Sept. 1, 2012, file photo, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, center, talks to his team during a timeout in a game against Missouri State in Manhattan.

In this Sept. 1, 2012, file photo, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, center, talks to his team during a timeout in a game against Missouri State in Manhattan.

Strengths

Kansas State's greatest strength lies with its offense and quarterback Collin Klein.

The biggest key for KSU is to stay in manageable downs and distances. The Wildcats are fifth nationally in FootballOutsiders.com's statistic for "standard downs," which consists of all first downs, second and eight or shorter, third and five or shorter and fourth and five or shorter. Basically, if teams haven't been able to key in on the pass against KSU, they've had a hard time stopping the 'Cats. That's illustrated in KSU's third-down percentage, as the Wildcats have converted 10 of 12 third downs this season (83 percent) when the distance to go is between one and three yards.

Though KSU is known for its running game, its passing game (in limited attempts) has been extremely successful this season. The Wildcats rank third in FootballOutsiders.com's Passing S&P+ statistic (think of it as football's version of OPS), and the standard numbers back that high ranking up.

Consider this: KSU has 15 20-yard passes this year, compared to just nine for KU. The Wildcats have done that despite attempting 50 fewer passes than KU this year (130-80).

Anyone that says the Wildcats can't throw probably hasn't seen them play this season (KSU did only have 26 20-plus-yard pass plays in 12 games last year).

Coach Bill Snyder also, once again, has a team that wins the field position battle. The Wildcats rank sixth in the "field position advantage" category on FootballOutsiders.com (KU is 85th), with the Wildcats also boasting a kickoff return for touchdown and a punt return for touchdown this year.

KSU also plays clean football. The Wildcats have just three giveaways this year (T-ninth nationally) while leading the nation with just 16.5 penalty yards per game.

Weaknesses

Kansas State's defense appears to be its biggest question mark, at least statistically.

The Wildcats don't appear to be a team that gives up many big plays (KSU has allowed just 11 20-plus-yard plays, good enough to be tied for sixth nationally), but they have allowed teams to move the football methodically, especially through the air.

KSU has allowed 49 first downs via the pass this year, which actually is more than KU has given up (47). The Wildcats also have surrendered 12 scoring drives of 50 or more yards, with six of those lasting 10 plays or longer.

In addition, opponents have completed a whopping 66.7 percent of their passes against KSU (100 of 150, T-115th nationally).

Players to Watch

The aforementioned Klein (No. 7) remains as one of the Heisman's frontrunner after leading KSU to an unexpected 4-0 start.

The senior is 11th nationally in rushing yards by a QB (294) while also ranking 45th in total yards per game (264.3).

Senior linebacker Arthur Brown (No. 4) is the clear leader of the defense, as he's third in the conference with 36 tackles to go with three tackles-for-loss, one sack and two pass breakups.

Junior John Hubert (No. 33) has been the Wildcats' primary running back, averaging 107.8 rushing yards per game (16th nationally) while also posting 6.5 yards per carry. He hasn't broken many huge plays, though; he has just two runs of 20-plus yards this season.

Finally, sophomore Tyler Lockett (No. 16) is the one KU should be most worried about on special teams. His 97-yard kickoff return to start the second half broke open last year's 59-21 KSU victory over KU, and his 39-yard average on kickoff returns this year ranks second nationally. With KU's struggles at getting kickoffs to the end zone, Lockett should get the opportunity to make a game-changing play on special teams during Saturday's game.

Bottom Line

To me, this seems like a game that will be closer than most are predicting.

For one, there shouldn't be too many possessions. KU coach Charlie Weis has already discussed "nickle and diming" KSU's defense, and the Jayhawks will have to do that along with milking the play clock under five to have any chance as a huge underdog.

Also, though Snyder is probably once again the lead candidate for national coach of the year, I don't think Weis is as overmatched as his predecessor at KU was (which also was the main reason I predicted a 28-point blowout for KSU last year, though even that wasn't enough). With two weeks to prepare, Weis should pull out some things that he hasn't shown before, which could be a benefit against a KSU defense that doesn't appear to be as strong as it was a year ago.

Though KU's offense has struggled a lot, it still could be due for some better fortune. The Jayhawks have converted just 25 percent of their third downs this year; though KU's offense is bad, no team in the nation was lower than 27 percent a year ago.

If the Jayhawks can keep the 'Cats from scoring off their defense and/or special teams, I see this as a game KU can keep close.

And that would be progress for the Jayhawks after the last two years' beatdowns.

Prediction: Kansas State 30, Kansas 20.

Hawk to Rock: If quarterback Dayne Crist is going to turn his season around, this looks like a good opportunity to do it. As mentioned above, opponents have completed 66.7 percent of their passes against KSU. Also, Crist shouldn't have to worry much about trying to force big plays, as the Wildcats have allowed just nine 20-plus-yard passing plays all season (T-13th nationally).

It'll be a tough environment to play with K-State's crowd, but Crist should be able to have some success if he can stand in against the rush and find open receivers running short-to-intermediate routes.

I think we'll see Crist's best game as a Jayhawk on Saturday. Let's say 250 passing yards with two passing TDs to go with an interception.

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