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Opening Our Files: Roundup on Kansas State Previews & Other Wildcats Notes

We will leave it to others for now to write and speculate about UCLA making a move in the Pac-10. Here on the home page of BN, we will stick to the mantra that has worked for us for years: keep our focus on our next opponent. With a record of 4-8 in 2008, we are not the kind of program that has the luxury to look ahead. Coming into this season the goal for Rick Neuheisel and his football team was to get into a bowl game with at least 6 regular season victories. With a 2-0 start and a win at a difficult place like the Neyland Stadium, it puts us in a must win situation this week in our last remaining non conference game before the start of a tough Pac-10 schedule.

Our next opponent – Kansas State Wildcats – are off to a very rough start in 2009. The Wildcats struggled to beat UMass at home (a team which just started playing D-1A ball this year) and then they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by a score of 15-17. The takes from our SBN colleagues at Bring On The Cats (BTC) are understandably gloomy. also put their recent loss "in perspective":

Let's put this one in perspective: Louisiana had not defeated a school from a BCS conference since Sept. 14, 1996, when Jake Delhomme led the Ragin' Cajuns to a 29-22 upset of No. 25 Texas A&M. Overall, the Cajuns were just 1-15 against teams from the Big 12 Conference.

That, however, was before Saturday's 17-15 victory over Kansas State in Lafayette.

"It's probably disheartening to a lot of people," coach Bill Snyder said of the loss, which dipped the Wildcats to 1-1. "I want our guys to be disappointed."

Still, if anyone wants to get all smug and disrespect the KSU, I’d suggest browsing through Tennessee blogs and message boards last week and revisit those bold predictions of the Volunteers cruising to a victory.

Last week it was our team that went into the opponent’s turf with nothing to lose. This week it will be the Kansas State Wildcats, who will be coming into the Rose Bowl as double digit underdogs, looking to sneak up with nothing to lose on a Bruin football team and fanbase feeling good about a SEC road win. Add to those factors we will most likely be breaking in a true freshman QB as a starter, a revamped OL which is improving but still working to gel as a unit, and all the inexperience at other offensive skill positions, Bruins will need to be on high alert.  So with those toplines let’s get to some initial notes on Kansas Sate.

The story of these Wildcats begin with their head coach Bill Snyder who returned to Manhattan to clean up the mess left behind by inept regime of Ron Prince. If CRN’s return to UCLA is the "return of the prodigious son," Snyder’s return to Manhattan can be looked as "the Return Of the Godfather".  Paul Meyerberg from the New York Times’ put Snyder’s record in perspective in his pre-season Wildcat preview:

The Wildcats went 137-445-18 from 1935-1988, the year before Snyder’s arrival. The program finished with only five winning seasons over this 54-year span: 1936, 1953-54, 1970 and 1982; that’s three fewer winning seasons than the program had winless seasons over that time. When Snyder arrived in late 1988, the program was mired in a streak of 27 consecutive games without a win (under Stan Parrish, the new coach at Ball State). While he did not immediately make K.S.U. into a winner – the Wildcats won 18 games in his first four seasons – the program took the next step forward in 1993, when it finished 9-3-1 and set a team record for points in a season (312). That year marked the first of 11 nine-win or better seasons in 12 years for the Wildcats, including a stretch from 1997 to 2003 of six 11-win seasons in seven years, making K-State only the second program in F.B.S. history to have such an extended streak of tremendous play. In 1998, an historic win over rival Nebraska pushed K-State to the top spot in the A.P. poll, the first time the team stood atop the college football landscape. That year – which ended with the Wildcats at No. 4 nationally – might have been the apex of the program, but Snyder continued to field annual conference and B.C.S. contenders. Kansas State won its first conference championship since 1934 in 2003, when it upset heavily favored and then-No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. However, the team struggled in the following two seasons, finishing a combined 9-15, leading many to question whether Snyder could still coach at a high level. Hence Snyder’s decision after the 2004 season (mutual, by all accounts) to step down, leading K.S.U. to hire Prince.

Well Prince ran the program into the ground (just like Karl Dorrell). Luckily for KSU it took them three years to recognize that fact, so they brought in Synder to clean up the mess. Apparently he is kind of a character as noted by the bloggers at Barking Carnival (Texas Longhorns blog) in their hilarious 2009 preview of Kansas State. It’s pretty funny (not very politically correct) read, all though I am sure it’s not amusing to fans of KSU (and it includes the usual easy cheap shots at Neuheisel that seems to be SOP for fans of most Big-12 teams).

As for the team, the biggest challenge for Kansas State this season has been replacing quarterback Josh Freeman, who was a first round draft pick in this year’s NFL draft. Freeman left KSU after his junior season, setting the school’s holds career mark for passing yards (8,078), touchdowns (40), completions (663), attempts (1,121) and total offense (8,080). So far the QBs seeking to step up for Freeman have been struggling. From TB at BTC:

At least in my case, I think we undersold how important Josh Freeman was to this team.  I know fans from other schools ran him down as all hype and no results, but we're seeing right now that he truly was about the only reason this program wasn't 2-10 the last two years.

I also think Carson Coffman and Grant Gregory are victims of the standard Freeman set.  For all the knocks on Freeman, he had a cannon for an arm and was pretty accurate generally.  Coffman and Gregory are being asked to learn an incredibly complicated offensive system on the fly.  They also don't have a lot of experience; in Coffman's case, that's because he's been second-string to a first-round NFL pick for two years, and in Gregory's case it's because he was behind Matt Groethe at USF.

I imagine Coffman and Gregory’s struggle have the Wildcats frustrated because at least per the pre-season reviews they had some weapons to work with and were coming into the season with a decent offensive line:

Despite losing Murphy (Deon Murphy, who finished third on the team in receptions with 37, and second on the squad in receiving yards (555) and touchdowns (6))  and Pierce (Ernie Pierce, whose 15.7 yards per catch average (24 for 424 yards) led the team), the deepest position on the Kansas State offense is wide receiver. The team brings back the 2008 Big 12 offensive newcomer of the year in the senior Brandon Banks, who led the team in receptions (67), yards (1,049) and touchdowns (9) in his first season with the program. Banks, like Murphy before him, excels in the return game, as shown in his 27.7 yards per kick return average. He will be joined at receiver by the senior Aubrey Quarles (34 receptions for 407 yards) and the junior Lamark Brown (24 for 178). Brown spent much of his 2008 season at running back, leading the team in rushing (412 yards). Another weapon to watch in the passing game is the senior tight end Jeron Mastrud, who made 38 receptions for 455 yards a season ago. The senior Keithen Valentine is expected to assume the starting running back role, but the freshman Jarell Childs and the sophomore Logan Dold will also receive carries. The offensive line may have lost three starters, but the team does return a numbers of players with past starting experience. Leading the way is the senior Nick Stringer, a 2008 all-Big 12 honorable mention pick at left tackle. He brings 23 career starts into his final season, most among all Wildcat offensive linemen. Stringer and guard Eric Benoit are the only seniors on the current two-deep, so this will be a young group in 2009. Still, the line could be surprisingly strong this fall, especially if it gets good production from the plethora of sophomores battling for starting roles.

Brandon Banks is off to a slow start for the Wilcats per Banks had just three catches for 33 yards against Louisiana, after catching seven balls for 67 yards in the opening win over UMass. So, if I were the Bruin DBs, I’d keep a close eye on him. Meanwhile, DB Daniel Thomas is off to good start as he has put together back to back 100 yards rushing games (I know, I know ... look at the opponent) in his first two games (136 yards in 27 carries against Louisiana, which followed a 104 yard game against UMass).

I think it will be interesting to see how the Bruin defense comes out on Saturday. I am sure it’s not lost on them that despite their solid (some would call it outstanding) performance in last two weeks, they didn’t really come out and set a dominating tone in their first series. Especially as good as the performances have been from Rahim Moore, ATV, Reggie Carter, Brian Price, and the Bosworth brothers, we can use more focused performance from kids such as Akeem Ayers. Our defense still has room to grow to reach it full potential, and the team with a new quarterback will be really looking to them to set the tone on Saturday.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball Wildcats have some athletes on the defensive side with two solid ends on the frontline:

The team returns two solid ends in the sophomore Brandon Harold (45 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 3 sacks), a 2008 freshman all-American, and the senior Eric Childs (52 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Harold is the most likely current Wildcat to continue the team’s recent tradition of standout defensive ends. In the middle, K.S.U. should be very excited about what the senior Jeffrey Fitzgerald can do for the team’s run defense (217.7 yards per game last fall). Fitzgerald, who sat out all of last fall after transferring in from Virginia, may be the best player on the entire defense.

The Wildcats return two starters at linebacker, including the sophomore Alex Hrebec. A former walk-on, Hrebec stuffed the stat sheet last fall with 68 tackles (4 for loss), 2.5 sacks and an interception. It’s rare enough to see a walk-on earn a starting role for a B.C.S.-conference program; it’s rarer still to see a walk-on start as a redshirt freshman. Joining him at linebacker is the senior Ulla Pomele (58 tackles, 7.5 for loss), a former JUCO transfer. K-State’s secondary is led by the junior Joshua Moore, a 2008 honorable mention all-Big 12 pick and a potential all-American this fall. Moore concluded his sophomore campaign first on the team in both tackles (76) and interceptions (3), illustrating his importance to the overall success of the defense. Moore is the best Wildcat cornerback since Terence Newman. He is joined in the secondary by three talented safeties: Chris Carney, Tysyn Hartman and Courtney Herndon.

Well not sure if Harold will be available for this weekend’s game as per their roster report on CBS he has been sitting out with an injury (along with DE Kadero Terrell and AR Aubrey Quarles). Perhaps the Kansas State fans who are lurking on BN this week, can provide us with a more up to date take on the injury situation. As for the other guys, Pete Fiutak from College Football News called Joshua Moore the best defensive player for KSU heading into this season.

I think the key here will be all about game management. We will need our quarterback to do what Prince did fairly effectively as a first year starter in his first two games: minimize mistakes and do what he can to keep the chains moving. This will be one of those games that will present Chow and his offense an opportunity to execute the strategy of picking up 4 yards or more per rushing attempts, and putting the offense in manageable situations on second and third downs. If we can combine that with continued stellar play from our special teams we will have a good chance to keep the momentum going heading into a bye week.

That’s what I have for now. I am looking forward to learning up about Kansas State, the same way we keep discussing Tennessee this past week. We will be reading up more on KSU during the week. If you have your own perspective to offer up wrt to Saturdays’ matchups fire the quick takes in the comment threads and the extended ones in FanPosts. That invitation goes out to all Kansas State fans who might be visiting BN for the first time. We are looking forward to chatting up football the same way we had fun going back and forth (in respectful and classy way) with the Volunteer fans from last game week. Football should always be about fun.