By Jeff Burkhart
Baylor head coach Art Briles is bringing arguably Baylor’s best team in almost 20 years to Manhattan this weekend. The Bears offense has had no problems scoring points, putting up 50 against reigning Rose Bowl champion Texas Christian. Kansas State is coming off of a 28-24 victory at Miami last weekend, the school’s biggest non-conference win in almost a decade. The Cats will enter Saturday’s game still boasting one of the nation’s top 10 defenses. Something has to give in one of the Big 12’s marquee games for Week 5.
K-STATE Offense vs. Baylor Defense – Edge: K-State
Former K-State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was brought on to Art Briles’ staff to shore up a defense that was one of the worst in the country in 2010: Baylor was 104th in total defense and 89th in scoring defense. Baylor has shown some signs of improvement through its first three games; however, FBS opponents are still averaging 39.5 points per game and 441 yards per game against the Bears this season. Not good.
Nicolas Jean-Baptiste will provide a big presence in the middle for Baylor’s front seven, but outside of the 335-pound defensive tackle there isn’t a whole lot of game changing personnel on the defensive side of the ball for Baylor. Linebacker Elliot Coffey is one of the better tacklers on the team, and defensive backs Chance Casey and Mike Hicks are both in the top 20 in tackles in the conference.
On the flip side for K-State, what a difference a few weeks makes. After struggling against FCS foe Eastern Kentucky, the Cats are beginning to assert themselves as one of the premier rushing teams in the Big 12. The 200+ yards on the ground against Kent State came as expected, but John Hubert’s breakout 166-yard performance against the vaunted Miami Hurricanes showed that he’s ready to carry the load at running back. Quarterback Collin Klein displayed great resolve but more importantly maturity in his three-touchdown effort against the Canes. K-State’s offense seems to be finding both balance and rhythm as it heads into conference play.
Many people will read too far into the Bennett vs. Snyder match-up. Yes, Bennett probably has a better idea than most coordinators about what the Cats might run against his defense. But, both Snyder and Briles admitted during their respective press conferences that it will come down to execution. Also, keep in mind that Snyder came out throwing against Miami, as quarterback Collin Klein attempted four passes on the opening drive but would throw only 14 through the Wildcats next ten possessions. Something tells me we’ll be in for another chess match.
Baylor Offense vs. K-STATE Defense – Edge: Baylor
There is no way around it. Robert Griffin III is a freak. The JUNIOR quarterback has completed 85 percent of his passes for 962 yards, 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Oh yeah, he also has more touchdowns (13) than incompletions (12). Another things to keep in mind, he’s done this in just 10 quarters of play… and he has 42 school records. Legitimate heisman contender? You bet.
One statistic that has gone by the wayside is that Baylor’s rushing attack averages 241 yards per game, good for 15th nationally. Griffin has the ability to run but is very much a pass first, run second quarterback. Terrance Ganaway is averaging 96.3 yards per game and packs a punch at 240 pounds.
One player who torched the Cats last season was Josh “Flash” Gordon. The towering 6-4 wide receiver burned the Cats with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He has since transferred to Utah. With Gordon out of the fold, K-State’s secondary actually has a somewhat favorable size match-up against Baylor. The Bears top three receivers are all shorter than 6 foot. But, Kendall Wright has more than made up for the loss of Gordon. The junior wide receiver is currently second in the conference in receptions per game (10.3) and tops in yards per game (140).
If K-State has any hope of slowing down Baylor it will come with sure tackling. The Wildcats front four has done a decent job at plugging holes for runningbacks but has struggled with the pass rush. Don’t expect that to change as the Cats D-Line goes against a Baylor OL that currently boasts 104 starts and has only let opposing defenses get to Griffin twice. Expect soft coverage from the Cats secondary as they attempt to limit big play opportunities downfield.
Special Teams – Edge: EVEN
Neither team has shown this to be its strong suit. K-State and Baylor have both struggled in the punting department with net averages of 33.9 and 31.0, respectively (9th and 10th in the conference). Aaron Jones has been solid for Baylor in the fieldgoal department connecting on all three tries this season – 22 for 30 in this career – including what would amount to be the game-winner against TCU. K-State’s Anthony Cantele is currently 4-for-6 on fieldgoal tries this season but will have the advantage of working in the friendly confines of Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Field position is important, but I think you throw it out in this game. Both offenses will put up points with ease. Where each team begins its drives, particularly Baylor, is secondary.
What to Watch: The Clock
Everybody knows Snyder will employ a game plan that mirrors what the Cats rolled out against Miami. K-State limited the Hurricanes to just 10 possessions. Last season Baylor had the ball on 14 occasions, scoring on eight of its first 10 touches. The two that didn’t end in points: an 82-yard run by Jay Finley that was fumbled through the back of the end zone and a Raphael Guidry interception at the Cats 12-yard line.
Baylor produced a school record 683 yards against K-State in last season’s 47-42 victory in Waco. Frankly, K-State will not be able to keep up if the game turns into a track meet. Ball control will be paramount for the K-State offense, which leads the Big 12 in time of possession at just over 34 minutes per game.
Parting Thought: Who will take the “next step”?
Since making his return to K-State, Snyder has slowly but surely turned the program back in the right direction. Last season, Art Briles took Baylor to its first bowl game in 16 years. Both programs are trying to make a move to the upper half of the new-look Big 12 and this is one of those swing games.
Snyder’s squad has taken incremental steps each year but has never been able to break through with a win in a game of this magnitude. In 2009, the Cats took down KU 17-10 and had a chance to put a stranglehold on the North division the next week in a home game against Missouri but came up short. Last season, K-State rolled out of the gates to an impressive 4-0 start but was demolished by Nebraska in its first real test of the season. The time is now for K-State and Baylor.
History is certainly not on the Bears side:
- 5-53 in Big 12 road games
- 0-7 in Big 12 conference openers away from Waco
- 0-4 in ABC televised games since joining the Big 12
- 0-3 in Manhattan (losing by an average score of 45-10)
Those numbers may provide the K-State faithful with some security, but I can assure you that they have little bearing on the outcome of Saturday’s game. Baylor is a player. With a better defense, the Bears would be in the conversation with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the Big 12 regular season title. Fortunately for K-State, the Bears are still a few years away from reaching the apex. Collin Klein has shown plenty of poise and he will need it on Saturday. This game was a toss up last year in Waco with the home team escaping by a five-point margin. I expect K-State’s improved defense to get enough stops and the offense will control the clock in what should be another game that goes right down to the wire.
Prediction: K-STATE 35 Baylor 28