When the Kansas Jayhawks (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) and Kansas State Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 Big 12) do battle in Lawrence this Saturday it will be in one of the most interesting and anticipated Sunflower Showdowns in recent memory.
For the first time in years both teams have something to play for beyond pride. The Jayhawks are still alive for bowl eligibility (as unlikely as it may be) and have put up some of the best offensive numbers in the country lately. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are coming off of a major upset win over Oklahoma and will be bowl eligible with just one more win.
This is the best the two programs have looked simultaneously in a long time. That could be a perfect combination for a memorable Sunflower Showdown this weekend.
Senior quarterback Carter Stanley has thrown for 725 yards in the last two weeks, the fifth most in the country. During that same stretch the Jayhawks have 1,096 total yards from scrimmage, which is third in the nation. With offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon’s RPO-heavy system in place the Kansas offense has taken off and torched opposing defenses. Stanley’s been playing the best football of his career while distributing the ball to the strongest group of playmakers that Kansas has had in years. It’s not just the passing game that’s working well, as the running game, led by sophomore running back Pooka Williams, has been breaking off big runs and consistently making plays lately too. Williams and freshman Velton Gardner have become one of the Big 12’s more dangerous duos.
For as good as the offense has been lately, the Kansas defense has struggled. Texas scored 50 points on it two weeks back, while Texas Tech racked up 483 total yards and had 28 first downs a week ago. A major difference this week compared to last will be senior safety Bryce Tornedon, who was ejected in the first quarter against TTU for targeting. He’s a crucial piece in a secondary group that has struggled as of late. While that group tries to hold strong against opposing air attacks, a makeshift front seven has been tested all season long. That group has experienced plenty of injuries and inconsistent play, but will need to hold strong against a good ground game from the Wildcats.
Despite playing the nation’s top offense last week, it was Kansas State that put up the most impressive offensive output. Junior quarterback Skylar Thompson was the catalyst for that, scoring four rushing touchdowns on his way to being named the Maxwell Award player of the week. That four-touchdown effort was the first time someone rushed for four scores against a top-five team in the AP Poll since Lamar Jackson did it against Florida State in his 2016 Heisman Trophy campaign. Not bad company to keep. Generally speaking, for all the other contributors K-State has, the offense goes as Thompson goes.
The K-State defense held Oklahoma to just 23 points through three quarters, which was a huge win. Eventually the Sooners went on a run, but the defense did enough against the most power offensive attack in the nation to secure the win. The defensive line is this team’s strength, with numerous guys who can stop the run and who can chase down the quarterback. That quarterback pressure will be crucial this week against Stanley, as they’ll need to disrupt him in order to negate the Jayhawks’ deep-throw heavy offense.
Big 12 Football Power Rankings – Week 9
Can the defense get off the field? The offense has been fantastic in the last couple of games, but while they’re scoring a bunch the defense is giving up plenty of points, to the tune of 42 per game against Texas and Texas Tech. K-State is committed to the ground game, something that KU has struggled against throughout the year. The Jayhawks will put their offense in favorable situations if they can increase the number of possessions on Saturday. But, if the Wildcats eat up a ton of clock and wear down the front seven with a punishing running game it will get progressively more difficult for Kansas to let its offense thrive. Third-down stops in particular will be vital.
Will they take the ball away? In their win over Oklahoma the Wildcats were +2 in turnover margin, which proved to be crucial in a one-score game. In their two losses, though, the Wildcats were a combined -1. Stanley has given the ball away a number of times this year, including a pick last week, but after that throw was clean the rest of the game. K-State needs to take the ball away this weekend. That’s a great way to steal possession, slow the game down and limit the number of big-play opportunities for the Jayhawks. They need to make Stanley uncomfortable to the point where he may turn it over.
Junior wide receiver Stephon Robinson. There is one player in the country who has six receiving touchdowns over the last three weeks: Robinson. He has become the favorite target for Stanley and has looked like one the Big 12’s best big-play threats over the past few games. The deep ball has become a vital part of KU’s offense, which was evident in last week’s win for the Jayhawks. All three of Stanley’s touchdown passes last week went for at least 48 yards, and there easily could have been another for Robinson of more than 50. His ability to break away down the field and work the sideline could be huge for Kansas.
Freshman wide receiver Malik Knowles. Similarly to KU’s situation, K-State may need the big play through the air this weekend. The reason behind it is different, though. Whereas Kansas finds it’s most success deep offensively regardless of who it’s playing, K-State has a chance to exploit one of KU’s biggest weaknesses by throwing deep. Thompson has been somewhat hot or cold in terms of passing numbers this year, but he could have a big day throwing it against a secondary that has been exploited two straight weeks. He needs someone to throw to, though, and Knowles has arguably the most playmaking ability of the Wildcats’ receiving corps.
Since the birth of #FadeDzwierzynski we’re 2-0 against the spread picking the Jayhawks. Kansas State is a formidable opponent, but we’re still drinking the Kool-Aid. KU will keep this one close, regardless of outcome.