Week 12 preview: Whoever plays quarterback, KU will face uphill battle against K-State
As has often been the case this season, another week has brought another mystery about just who might be playing quarterback for Kansas this weekend.
Head coach Lance Leipold suggested on Monday that he was “very optimistic” about Jason Bean returning from a head injury to lead the Jayhawks Saturday, even after Bean missed the week’s first practice; however, Leipold then said on 810 WHB’s “The Border Patrol” the next day that even with Bean progressing, “at the same time, we know Cole (Ballard) will be ready to go, and that’s probably the direction we’re going to have to plan on at this moment.”
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said Wednesday that Bean was practicing on that day and had taken “a lot of reps”; however, he was tight-lipped otherwise beyond referring to Bean, Ballard, Mikey Pauley and Ben Easters as “the four quarterbacks that are available to play.”
For Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, whose Wildcats come to Lawrence Saturday to battle the Jayhawks in the Sunflower Showdown, it doesn’t much matter who’s taking snaps; KU is “really good and really creative on offense, no matter who’s going to be behind center.”
“Nothing can change for us,” Klieman said. “And I know it was a smaller sample size but I really didn’t think they changed a whole lot offensively when (Ballard) came in the game last week. It’s still what they do and they’re having a lot of success on offense with (whoever) played quarterback … so why would you change it because another guy’s under center?”
The KU program seems to actually share Klieman’s view. Ballard, despite his status as a true freshman and until recently a walk-on, has shown enough “retention of information,” as Leipold put it, that he can run something resembling Kotelnicki’s elaborate offense.
“The beautiful thing about him is that one of his strengths is being able to handle that,” Kotelnicki said. “So him handling a check, any motion, any shift, any adjustment, the fact that he has all along had those capabilities, and he learns really well, makes it seamless.”
Ballard or Bean, whoever goes Saturday, will face a brutal test. K-State had been minus-three (105th) in turnover margin five games in and is now plus-seven (17th) through 10, adding a dangerous element to the nation’s No. 21 scoring defense and No. 14 pass defense. (For comparison, KU is Nos. 64 and 82 in those categories.) That is in part because of players like cornerback Jacob Parrish and safety Kobe Savage, who have had multiple-interception games, as well as senior linebacker and prolific tackler Austin Moore.
On the offensive side, the Wildcats are equally threatening thanks to an experienced line anchored by tackle Cooper Beebe, what KU defensive coordinator Brian Borland calls “detailed blocking schemes” and long-tenured skill-position players like quarterback Will Howard.
“They present challenges, really, in every aspect,” Borland said.
No. 25 Kansas Jayhawks (7-3, 4-3 Big 12) vs. No. 21 Kansas State Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 Big 12)
• David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, 6 p.m.
• Broadcast: FS1
• Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)
• Betting line: K-State -9.5; over/under 57.5
• Series history: KU leads 65-50-5
What to watch for
1. Déjà vu: The Jayhawks will once again face a 3-3-5 defense, after seeing similar looks at Iowa State and Oklahoma State. The scheme has vexed KU’s otherwise reliably successful run game, holding it to its two worst efforts of the year — 90 yards against the Cyclones, 74 against the Cowboys. However, despite the fact that a 3-3-5 team effectively starts with an additional player in its base coverage, Bean did well dissecting both of those teams, against whom he had his two best passing performances (at least by total yards). The question is whether the inexperienced Ballard — if he indeed starts — will be able to find the same vulnerabilities.
2. Double trouble: The Wildcats have used two quarterbacks this season, but they’ve done so mostly by choice, mixing in highly touted freshman and Maize High alumnus Avery Johnson. He ran for five touchdowns in an October game against Texas Tech. His usage has become sparser thanks to strong recent play by Howard but K-State does still have him available as a weapon off the bench.
3. Senior stars: Who knows whether it’ll translate to concrete results, but Saturday is the last game in David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium for a slew of prominent Jayhawks, including Bean, center Mike Novitsky, tight end Mason Fairchild, linebacker Rich Miller, safety Kenny Logan Jr. and many more. Could any of them make an even more substantial impact? Or might a less heralded but still prominent senior like cornerbacks Kalon Gervin or Kwinton Lassiter or kicker Seth Keller turn in a key play?
Daniel Hishaw Jr.: Devin Neal will get most of the attention in this game as a Lawrence native who recently passed three KU legends on the school’s all-time rushing yards list, but the elder of the so-called “Booth Brothers” has a chance for a resurgence Saturday. It’s been tough sledding for the Moore, Oklahoma, native in recent weeks; since racking up 134 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in a dazzling performance against UCF, he has run for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries in the last four weeks combined (3.3 yards per carry). But Kansas State is depleted at linebacker following season-ending injuries to Daniel Green, Asa Newsom and most recently Jake Clifton, and if the offensive line can give Hishaw sufficient holes, he might find some inexperienced reserves he can try to run over, as is his forte.
Inside the numbers
2008: The last time KU won a Sunflower Showdown; the Jayhawks will be looking to snap a 14-game losing streak against their rivals.
35.3: Kansas State’s average points per game since Collin Klein took over as offensive coordinator for the 2021 Texas Bowl. Most recently, the Wildcats put up 59 against Baylor for their highest point total in a conference game since 2011.
2-15: KU’s record under Lance Leipold when it allows a 100-yard rusher — though those two wins have come this season, against UCF and Oklahoma. As a team, the Wildcats average more than 200 yards per game.
Kansas State wins 30-20. A freshman first-time starting quarterback — as fast as he may be able to pick things up — potentially starting against a turnover-forcing defense with a scheme that has given KU trouble just doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. Even if Bean plays, KU might not be able to gain enough ground in the trenches to allow for meaningful offensive progress on some drives. Now, if the Jayhawks’ own defensive front can play like it did on basically every series against Texas Tech other than the first and last, KU will have a chance to beat just about anyone. But Klein, Klieman and company will find ways to wear down the Jayhawks’ defense, which is already depleted by injuries upfront, and score enough points to spoil Senior Day in Lawrence.