The Wildcats had an exciting end to their season, upsetting Oklahoma State on the road and beating Iowa State by one point in the final seconds of their last regular season game. They ended 2017 7-5, and will be taking on our Bruins on the 26th in the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona,
One of the greatest deficiencies on the UCLA defense was stopping the run, and K State is unfortunately going to run the ball early and often. They have the offensive line to open holes and create opportunities, and what they lack in talent they make up for in technique. But first, let’s look at the Wildcat who will be slinging the ball around.
I hate to say it, but UCLA will be facing yet another backup quarterback, and seasoned fans know what that means. Our defense has unfortunately made back ups look like Heisman candidates (see: Khalil Tate, K.J. Costello). Freshman Skylar Thompson will be handing the offense for Kansas State, and while he started the season as the third man down the depth chart, he has definitely proven his worth as a quarterback. He can make things happen on broken plays, is definitely a dual threat, and can hold his own against the blitz. While he’s barely finishing his first year in Division 1 football, he has an attitude that makes him come across as a veteran. He didn’t get the starting job until October 28 against Kansas when he came in to relieve K State’s injured back up. Their starter, Jesse Ertz, had been injured earlier in October and was out for the remainder of the season. Alex Delton filled in for two and a half games until the reins were passed to Thompson. He has since taken the Wildcats on an incredible surge and is definitely the future of K State football.
He has appeared in seven games this year and only lost one (his first two appearances were early in the season during garbage time). He has completed 63% of his passes and thrown five touchdowns, and has also piled on 263 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Not bad for your #3 man. He’ll tuck and run when given the chance, so not only will the UCLA front have to defend running backs, but a quarterback that’s not afraid to use his feet as well.
As I’ve said before, K State’s offensive line isn’t the most talented in the league. However, they make up for that in skill, technique, and executing their assignments (what a concept). They’ve got all sophomores and juniors starting, with Adam Holtorf anchoring the line at center, Abdul Beecham and and Scott Frantz on the left, and Tyler Mitchell and Dalton Risner on the right. Reid Najvar had been a lock on the center position, but missed the entire season with concussion issues. Their tackles are a major strength for this unit, and are good run blockers. They benefit from the recent emergence of a talented dual threat quarterback.
The name to look for at this position is Alex Barnes. He leads the team with 702 yards and six rushing touchdowns, and all three quarterbacks that have played for the Wildcats have more yards than the next running back on the stats board. Barnes is clearly the go-to guy, and with a dual threat in Thompson, the UCLA defense is going to have to watch both of these guys. Dalvin Warmack hasn’t contributed an immense amount of yards this year, but has had three touchdowns and will also have to be watched at this position.
Byron Pringle and Isaiah Zuber will be the top two picks for Thompson in this game. They have over 1,200 yards between them, and these two account for 10 of K State’s 15 touchdowns in the air. Pringle is so fast he’s also listed as a kick returner for this offense, and averages over 26 yards per return. Dalton Schoen was the number three man on the list, but he broke his collarbone late in the season and will be out for this game. Our secondary is going to have to choose between covering these guys deep while not letting Thompson and Barnes break out for long distance runs.
While Thompson has had a lot of late-season success, he’s still a freshman and has accuracy issues that need to be worked on. If we stack the box and get in his head, we just might be able to exploit his age and create opportunities for sacks and maybe even a fumble or two. As always, we need to stop the run and contain Barnes while not letting Thompson get past our front five. I’m not too worried about this offense because I think in the end we can put up more points than they can. With Josh Rosen looking like he’s going to play, I think we can get Jedd Fisch’s first (and only) win as the UCLA head coach.