For Kansas, the only thing on the line in this year’s Sunflower Showdown is pride. Their spot in a bowl game is clinched (now, seemingly destined to play Missouri...ugh), their coach is committed for the near future, and the only thing left between them and their postseason is today’s game against Kansas State. But that’s just the Kansas perspective. Kansas State has a real shot at a Big 12 title, but to get into the championship game this one is a must-win. It’s also going to be played on a cold night in Manhattan where, given that Kansas isn’t the usual pushover this year, and that this game matters quite a bit for them, I expect the crowd to be about as rowdy as it gets. That should set the stage for an exciting game, but given what Kansas did on senior day last week, there’s trepidation on the crimson and blue side.
There are rumors that K-State quarterback Will Howard, who took over in the TCU game for the injured Adrian Martinez and never looked back, may be battling an illness. There has been no indication from the purple side that Howard is anything but QB1 tonight, but the possibility that he won’t be 100% is at least out there. If Howard were to be held out, there’s little information out there about senior transfer Adrian Martinez, who earned the starting job until his leg injury against TCU. He did get some reps during K-State’s easy win over Baylor two weeks ago, so it’s clear he isn’t out, and it’s clear he’s been unable to take the starting job from Howard. Still, it does appear he’s available if Howard isn’t able to go for some reason.
Kansas State’s offense has been far more than just Martinez and Howard though. Senior running back Deuce Vaughn is no doubt salivating over the opportunity to play this Kansas defense after what Bijan Robinson, possibly the only back in the Big 12 better than Vaughn, did to KU last week. Vaughn has rushed for 1,148 yards this year, averaging 5.2 yards per carry while tacking on another 266 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns. The Wildcats don’t have a true go-to receiver, but are led in receptions and yards by senior Malik Knowles, at 44 catches for 669 yards.
With KU’s defense ranked 103rd by sp+, it’s probably a given that K-State will move the ball and score points. If Adrian Martinez plays QB, anything can happen. Like, anything from him running and passing for a combined 500 yards and 5 TDs, to looking like he’s seeing his first ever playing time on a football field. But against this defense, the former is more likely than the latter. But again, rumors about Will Howard’s health are just that, and Howard has been a much steadier presence for the offense. But the key to Kansas’ success this year hasn’t really been on the defensive end. It’s whether the offense keeps up with the opponent. That’s actually the part that concerns me more.
Kansas wins games by racking up points. The times they’ve looked their worst as a team have been the games where they go up against a strong defense. That describes K-State pretty well, who has the second best defense in the Big 12 according to sp+ at 18th nationally. If you recall the Iowa State game, the Jayhawks really won largely on the back of the Cyclones’ offensive and kicking ineptitude as they struggled to put up points on ISU. That’s very unlikely to happen in this game, as K-State has shown themselves to be beyond competent on both side of the ball.
Last week, we found out after the game from Lance Leipold that the QB1 role came down to who felt like they could go in warmups. That turned out to be Jalon Daniels, making his first appearance since separating his shoulder against TCU. However, it wasn’t the Jalon Daniels we saw early in the season, as he was clearly very hesitant to run, and OC Andy Kotelnicki seemed very hesitant to put him in situations where he had to do anything more than simply hand off, or make simple reads and passes from the pocket. With neither him or backup Jason Bean seemingly close to 100%, I’m having a hard time envisioning what Kansas can realistically do to keep this game close. A few weeks ago, I would have just hoped that the offense could get rolling and win a shootout, but the offense we saw against Texas last week didn’t look like anything that could even participate in a shootout. Unless we get lucky and the Wildcats’ QB situation becomes a problem, or they come out tight and make some big mistakes, I don’t see a seventh win coming this week. Let’s just stay healthy for the bowl game.
Kansas State 45, Kansas 24