With just four games remaining in the regular season and Kansas State riding an undefeated season, Saturday’s next test has now turned into the most important game for the Wildcats.
And yet again, it’s no easy test for the Wildcats — ranked third in the AP and second in the BCS — who host Oklahoma State Saturday at 7 p.m. on ABC. A win over the Cowboys — ranked No. 24 in both the coaches poll and the BCS — would go a long way in securing the Big 12 title for K-State, as OSU enters the game at 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference.
As has been the case the last two weeks, for the Wildcats (8-0, 5-0) to keep the winning streak alive, they’ll have to find a way to stop a powerful Cowboys’ offense averaging a league-best 586 yards a game. Oklahoma State, coming off three straight wins against Kansas, Iowa State and TCU, is averaging more than 44 points a game and doing it with what could be the most balanced attack in the Big 12.
Led by running back Joseph Randle, the Cowboys are the best in the Big 12 in rushing, averaging 239 yards a game, just slightly better than the Wildcats at 229 ground yards per game.
“He’s a very talented running back,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said of Randle, who is ninth in the country with 127 rushing yards per game. “He runs hard, but he’s a smart runner and picks his lanes very well. They have good depth, too, at that position, got guys healthy again, and can give him a break when he needs it, which makes him that much stronger.”
Helping the Wichita native on the ground and the Cowboys’ quarterbacks is an Oklahoma State offensive line that might be one of the best in the league — surrendering just three sacks all season.
Averaging nearly 311 pounds across the front, the O-State line is anchored by three returning starters from last season’s team that finished 12-1.
“They’re solid, sound up front and have good schemes and run the ball well,” Snyder said. “If you allow it to happen, sometimes it’s a little hard to do something about. But they can line up and run the ball all day.”
On the flipside, the Wildcats boast the Big 12’s best scoring defense, giving up just 17 points per game and leading the league with 20 sacks. Against the run, K-State is second in the league, allowing just 102 yards a game.
The Cowboys have perhaps turned more to the run this season because of youth at the quarterback position, taking over for Brandon Weeden, who is now the Cleveland Brown’s starter.
Oklahoma State has also had to battle some injuries at QB with freshman starter Wes Lunt going down in Week 3 and missing three and a half games. His replacement was another freshman — J.W. Walsh — who filled in well and guided the Cowboys to a 3-1 record. Lunt returned last week and passed for 324 yards and a touchdown in a 36-14 win over TCU.
Lunt, who will start Saturday, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 228 yards per game with five touchdowns and four interceptions.
Walsh has completed 66 percent of his passes for 244 yards a game with 10 touchdown and three interceptions. He’s also second on the team with 254 rushing yards and three scores.
“I think there is a slight difference in the approach depending on which quarterback is on the field,” Snyder said of the Cowboys’ QBs. “The downside of that is that both of them are awfully good, both have tremendous numbers to support that. They’re both young, so it’s not about one having more experience than the other.
“One is a little more dual-purpose than the other one, but the other one can run as well.”
But Snyder said stopping the Cowboys starts with stopping their dynamic ground game.
“Any ballgame you go into, and you play in a conference — everybody talks about spreading it out, throwing the ball around — I don’t think there’s a football program in the country that realizes if you can’t be effective against the running game, you give them the capacity to do both,” he said.