Thursday, November 8, 2007

Contender or Pretender?

Sorry for that title, by the way. I don't want to sound like Sean Salisbury analyzing NFL playoff hopes on a Tuesday in the first month of the season, but I'm sure that's how it comes off. Regardless, here are the facts:
- This is November
- This is a road game on ABC Primetime – Once you have a "Lives Here" commercial, you have arrived
- OSU may be 5-4 but they are legit and dangerous
- And finally, Kansas is in the national title hunt

Amazingly, even if Kansas happens to slip up and lose these next two games and Missouri does not, the game at Arrowhead will still be for the Big 12 North. The only way that changes is if KU wins both and Missouri loses at least once. But nobody wants that to happen. Even crazier, I won't be surprised by much at this point. The only thing that could catch me off guard is if both lose out until the game. And realistically, the most probable scenario is for them to keep winning and enter the game a combined 21-1. I realize they aren't there yet, but isn't it amazing that ABC hasn't picked up this game for their primetime slot as well? I mean, last year's KU/MU game wasn't even very entertaining and it did very well in the 8% of the country in which it was broadcast. Just for comparison, ABC has this game against 5-4 OSU being shown to 63% while USC/Cal is going to just 18%! With that, on to the match-ups.

Kansas Offense v. OSU Defense. I highly doubt they hang 76 on the Pokes, but it should be another fun day at the office for Hot Toddy and Co. When an offense produces 500 yards per game and scores 35 points a game, but is 5-4, it's usually not much of a mystery as to why. Okie State is no different. Statistically, they are not much different on this side of the ball than the recently bludgeoned Cornhuskers. On the year, OSU is allowing 448 ypg (R-143, P-305) leading to over 27 points. Kansas, meanwhile is totaling 490 yards, leading to 46 points. These are the happy stats for the week for Kansas fans. I'd say splitting the difference should be good enough to leave Stillwater 10-0.

Along with being bad against both the run and the pass, OSU does not force many turnovers either. They have caused 16 on the year (had 15) for a +1 margin. Despite this, I would like Kansas to limit their shots down the field. They need to take a few, for obvious reasons, but a big key Saturday will be ball control. Nebraska could not keep up with KU's offense, but against an equally tired KU defense, OSU can. To guard against this, the Hawks should drive down the field, balancing the run and the pass and picking up 3rd downs. Not only will this drain the OSU defense, but it will also keep their offense and the KU defense off the field. In conference games, their defense has been destroyed by at least one phase.
- Tech 650+
- KSU 400+
- A&M 200+ (good for A&M)
- NU 200+
- UT 300+
- A&M 150+

Kansas is one of four (OSU is also) teams nationally that average over 215 yards rushing and 250 yards passing, so if OSU tries to take one away, they are equally susceptible against the other. I have had a hard time figuring out which they want to take away, but I'm thinking it may be the run. My logic here is that they will think by taking away the run they can force Kansas into some quick 3 and outs and subsequently work against a tired Kansas defense. The problem here is that OSU may be even worse against the pass, giving up a whopping 305 yards a game. If this is how it goes down, I have all the confidence in the world that Hot Toddy will take his shots when he can and check down when necessary. No matter how OSU plays it, as long as Kansas takes what they are given, they should have no trouble lighting up the scoreboard. If anyone can explain Mike Gundy's fourth quarter play calling with anything other than "he doesn't trust his defense," I would love to here it. Fortunately, Kansas has no 12 year old girls on the roster. Edge: Kansas

Kansas Defense v. OSU Offense. I'm not telling you much new here, but this is the match-up that will decide the game. Some like to say Kansas would have a big advantage here, others do not concur. But for the sake of argument let's ignore the intelligent insights of Mr. Spruill and take a shot at what may happen. As he astutely points out, this will be the best offense Kansas has faced all year. And if you had only watched last week's game (which well could be the case), this could be an enormous concern. And let me tell you, even if you have watched every game (multiple times) it's still a concern, but not too the extent that Mr. Spruill is subtly hinting.

As mentioned above, Oklahoma St. has an offense with similar balance to the one we have been watching all year. But whereas Oklahoma St. has an extremely porous defense both through the air and on the ground, Kansas can definitely limit the run. If this is the case Saturday, all other things equal, Kansas will win the game. As is typically the case, OSU can't win without a running game. Dantrell Savage left their first game with an injury and did not play in the following two – OSU lost 2 of the 3. Since returning, he has posted 100 yards in each and to no surprise, OSU has won all but two, losing them by a combined 4 points. Their game @ A&M was eerily similar to their Kansas game last year as they led 17-0 at the half before squandering it away in pathetic fashion. Similarly, last week against Texas they led 35-14 until Mike Gundy got involved – and the next thing you knew Texas was kicking the game winning field goal.

Though they will not have the good fortune of being able to zero in on one particular phase, Kansas is fortunate to know that they can contain OSU by basically doing the same thing they have all season. As they have been all year, they must be assignment sound – if they do that, the rest will take care of itself. It may not completely eliminate the run (though that would be gravy), but it should force OSU into some 3rd and longs. Secondly, it should eliminate the big play, which is what killed them last year. Pettigrew is enormous and great, but Bowman is their big play guy and OSU needs the big play. Kansas should be able to defend Bowman conservatively without be scared of him – basically, let him make his catches but keep him in front and WRAP-UP! Last year, they let him run wild across the middle on a wheel route – and he still loves this style of play – so hopefully no one in white jerseys is surprised by this. It's not that they can't drive down the field progressively, but they definitely don't want to. Edge: OSU

Special Teams. If Kansas cannot limit the OSU offense and each is cancelling the other out, this could be the difference. OSU struggles in both the kicking game and with their coverage units. Their kickoff coverage is the better of the two, yielding just over 20 yards per return, but they have not faced a unit nearly as solid as Kansas'. As we saw last week, Nebraska has a good unit themselves, but not nearly what Kansas has and they had a great day against the OSU unit. On punt returns, however, OSU is terrible, yielding over 18 yards per return. They have only allowed 1 TD (74 @ Troy), which could be looked at as a positive, but it also emphasizes how consistently horrible this unit has been since that number is not inflated with a couple long returns. Unfortunately, Kansas has not had nearly the success with this unit as they have on kick returns. Since Anthony Webb refuses to fair catch anyway, maybe this will change this week. And lastly, Kansas also has the edge in place kicking as Scott Webb has been much more reliable than Jason Ricks – who missed both attempts last week (1 of them a 32 yarder to win the game). Ricks is a decent 8-14 on the year, but with a long of 32 yards and has only attempted 3 over 40 yards. Needless to say they do not have a great deal of confidence in him. Webb has not been great lately, missing his only attempt last week and only converting 2-5 @ A&M, but he is much more dependable than Ricks. He is 13-18 on the year and has shown range up to 48 yards. I'm still not sure what happened in College Station, but for now I remain confident in him.

All in all, the story is much the same as it has been all year. Kansas is the better team and it is because of their balance. Not just offensively, because OSU is equally balanced. The difference comes in each team's ability, or lack thereof to stop the run. Kansas can do this, while OSU cannot. It has not yet been mentioned, but it's worth noting also that Kansas only has 34 penalties on the year, while OSU has 69. And possibly even more importantly, Kansas has a plus 16 turnover margin compared to just plus 1 for OSU. It's debatable whether the raucous Stillwater crowd will have any effect on these statistics, but if they do not, chalk up another advantage for the Jayhawks. Everything about how this game is shaping up scares me: Stillwater, ABC Primetime, national publicity, Adarius Bowman, etc…but Hot Toddy and the Jayhawks have given me no reason not to trust them this year. I have a feeling this will be lower than the common prediction, but I'm thinking both teams will try to establish the run and hopefully Kansas will control the clock later on. Kansas 34 OSU 27

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