MANHATTAN, Kan. - On paper, Nebraska should have the clear edge here, as it ranks fourth in the country in rushing offense averaging more than 309 yards on the ground per game. On the other side, Kansas State has been dismal against the run, giving up an average of 195.5 rushing yards per contest over their first four games.
However, you can bet that the Wildcats are going to do everything in their power to make sure Nebraska has to try and beat them through the air. Look for KSU to load up the box with eight or even nine players to contain the Huskers' ground game and force redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez to throw. So long as NU can keep K-State honest with the pass, it has the advantage here.
NU Pass Offense vs KSU Pass Defense
This will be one of game's the key match-ups, as Martinez's ability to convert through the passing game will be crucial to keep Nebraska's offense balanced and not allow Kansas State to completely commit to stopping the run. After an impressive performance on the road against Washington, Martinez took a big step back against South Dakota State, throwing a pair of interceptions and losing a fumble in the win.
How he responds against a stingy KSU secondary will be a major factor tonight, as the Wildcats come into the game ranked 13th in the nation in pass defense allowing a little more than 153 yards per game. Considering the attention K-State is going to devote to stopping the run, the opportunities will be there for Martinez and Co. The question is whether they'll be able to capitalize.
KSU Run Offense vs NU Run Defense
When you talk about Kansas State, the first name that comes to mind is senior running back Daniel Thomas, and for good reason. The fifth-leading rusher in college football coming into tonight's game, Thomas is averaging 157 yards per game with six rushing touchdowns. Even more, his 105 carries through four games are the second most in the country, showing just how important of a piece he is in the Wildcats' offense.
For Nebraska, the lone weak point on an otherwise stellar defense so far this season has been its play against the run. While the Huskers have yet to be completely dominated on the ground, they have already matched last season's total of opposing 100-yard rushers (2) in the first four games, and the fact that those two backs were from Western Kentucky and South Dakota State doesn't help matters.
KSU Pass Offense vs NU Pass Defense
Of any other match-up in tonight's game, how well Kansas State quarterback Carson Coffman handles going up against one of college football's premiere secondaries could be the ultimate deciding factor between a win and a loss for either team. While Thomas is obviously the feature of the offense, Coffman has done little when the ball is in his hands, averaging less than 162 passing yards per game with just five touchdowns to two interceptions.
The Huskers will be looking to add to Coffman's interception total tonight, and seeing how they rank fifth nationally with 10 interceptions already, chances are they will. Assuming the front four and linebackers can keep KSU's running game in check and force Coffman to throw, look for Nebraska's defensive backs to continue to make big plays like they've been doing all season long.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
One area where Kansas State could really hurt Nebraska is on kickoff returns, as return man William Powell has averaged nearly 32 yards a return to rank eight in the country. However, the Huskers have been pretty good in their kickoff coverage, and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic's 12 touchbacks rank third nationally.
Both teams have good punters, and neither have had to rely much on field goals, but in most cases senior Alex Henery gives Nebraska a clear advantage in both departments. The Huskers could take advantage of KSU's shaky kickoff and punt coverage teams, but senior return man Niles Paul hasn't done much to establish himself as the same threat he was a season ago.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the football effectively and also, more importantly, find a way to be consistent in the passing game and make some big plays through the air. The Huskers' will also need to slow down Thomas and make Coffman throw the ball. If they can force some turnovers and control the ball on offense, there's no reason they can't bid KSU farewell with one final victory.
Kansas State Will Win If:
Thomas can be the monster back he's proven he can be since the start of last season and can force Nebraska to be one dimensional on offense. A low-scoring affair would be ideal for the Wildcats, and as long as they can keep the game within reach into the fourth quarter, they'll have a chance to pull off the upset.
The most important match-up in this game could very well come down to the men on the sidelines, as Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and his staff will match wits with the iconic Bill Snyder one last time. There's a lot of talk about how Kansas State is going to pull out all the stops to catch the Huskers off guard, which means the Wildcats could break out more than a few trick plays tonight. Snyder has been relatively conservative in his play calling in recent years, so it will be interesting to see how well NU responds to new looks and wrinkles they may have never seen before from Snyder's offense.