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September 7, 2012

Wildcats prepare for battle up front

It's not something that is generally discussed. Nor is it something that generates a considerable amount of praise from the outside. But more often than not, the outcome of a college football game is dictated by the battle in the trenches.

When No. 21 Kansas State hosts Miami (Fla.) on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, the game will present an overwhelming contrast of styles. The eyes of college football lovers will be glued to see if Bill Snyder's Wildcats can once again slow down the Hurricanes and prove that last season's 10-3 record was no fluke. In order to do that, K-State must win the battle in the trenches.

The trenches can easily be defined as the battle between a team's offensive line and the opposition's defensive line. It sounds simple, but it's not. It's one of the most complex parts of the game, but many refuse to pay heed to it. Much like the specialty positions, players in the trenches must possess skill, savvy and adaptability in order to be successful. In 2011, the advantage went to K-State.

In last year's contest, the first ever meeting between the two schools in their respective histories, the Wildcats controlled the trenches and stopped the Hurricanes on the goal line in the closing seconds to escape with a 28-24 victory at Sun Life Stadium.

This year, K-State will try to produce the same result. However, there are new challenges, new faces and new schemes that will be presented Saturday.

Let's start with K-State's offensive line versus Miami's defensive line. It's no secret that the Wildcats will try to run the football. It happened last year in Miami. Behind the legs of running back John Hubert and quarterback Collin Klein, K-State compiled 265 rushing yards on 44 attempts. They controlled the tempo of the game and dominated the time of possession with 33:23. Miami simply did not have an answer and most of that was determined by K-State's offensive line.

In last week's season opener against Missouri State, the Wildcats used a plethora of different lineman to find the right combination for this year and, more importantly, for this game. Starting left guard senior Nick Puetz will not play after suffering a broken foot against Missouri State, meaning a relatively inexperienced K-State line will have their hands full against an active Hurricane front four. The goal of running will be the same, but it might not be as effective as it was a year ago in South Beach.

Against a conference opponent last week, Miami racked up 208 yards on the ground behind Mike James and Duke Johnson. Johnson, a freshman, showcased magnificent speed on his two long touchdown runs and will be looking for a repeat performance in the Little Apple. The Wildcats were able to hold Missouri State to under 100 yards last week, but they didn't face the high-caliber athletes they will this weekend.
Advantage: Miami
The Wildcats hardly cracked open their playbook against the Bears in their season opener, especially in their rushing attack. Quarterback Collin Klein only ran the ball 13 times which means he will be fresh to face the Hurricanes. Running back John Hubert had a great first game rushing for 152 yards on 12 carries, including a 95-yard touchdown run that helped break the game open. Add that to his career-high 166 yard performance against Miami last year and the junior enters this game as confident as ever. Look for Klein and Hubert to carry the load throughout the game.
Big Advantage: K-State
Although Miami got the win last week and quarterback Stephen Morris threw for 208 yards, the Hurricane receivers dropped several passes. Coach Al Golden knows that needs to change if they want to win another road game. The Wildcat secondary got burned against Missouri State, but the veteran unit is looking to make up for it. Also, a noisy and hostile crowd at Bill Snyder Family Stadium could force Morris into making some costly mistakes.
Advantage: K-State
K-State's offense got off to a slow start last week, but Collin Klein looked comfortable in the pocket. However, he was skittish to pull the trigger at times. He completed 19 of 28 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears and called most of the plays during the first half. Miami will be expecting Klein to run the ball a lot, so this is a great game to showcase those improved passing skills and catch the Hurricanes by surprise. Klein will need to throw the ball efficiently and be willing to take chances down field when they are presented.
Advantage: K-State
The new kickoff rule has already effected the Wildcats' return game as the Bears kicked away from Tyler Lockett last week. Miami will likely do the same this week, but so will K-State. The difference on special teams will come from punt returns, something the Wildcats did well in their season opener. Lockett had a big return and Tramaine Thompson had an 89-yard return for a touchdown. Both teams have solid place-kickers to come in if their respective offenses stall, too.
Advantage: K-State
The experience and discipline of the Wildcats will truly be tested by a young, athletic Hurricane team. It's early in the season so anything is possible, but K-State will be looking to start stronger than last week. The talent level of Miami will be a nice wake-up call for K-State to start the season, but this a veteran group that knows how to win. Also, Bill Snyder will be the sideline.
Big Advantage: K-State
"Defensively, they are a big movement team, so you see a lot movement out of their front and blitzes from anybody and everybody they have in the first 11," Snyder said. "That is always an issue."

Klein agrees with his coach.

"They are a very athletic team, and they really hustle around," he said. "They make a lot of plays, so we are going to have to be disciplined, stay on blocks, finish blocks and be safe with the ball.

"Obviously, we cannot turn it over. We just need to be consist and be better than we were last week."

In their 51-9 home victory against the Bears, the Wildcats got off to a painfully slow start against their Football Championship Subdivision opponent and used a very limited and vanilla offense. However, they still managed to gain 324 yards on the ground when it was all said in done. This week brings a different test for the Wildcat rushing attack, though. It is simply due to the fact that the Hurricanes know who Klein is this time around.

"I think they held a lot back going into last year's game, but clearly we know who he is now and now it's just a function of stopping him," Miami coach Al Golden said this week. "It's going to be a great challenge for us."

The Hurricanes have two solid plugs up the middle in senior Darius Smith and sophomore Olsen Pierre. They were the lead catalysts in holding Boston College to just 96 yards on 34 carries last week. Pierre is very active and has the ability to get into the backfield on any given play. The Wildcats will need to disrupt him in order to have the success they want on the ground.

In passing situations, the Hurricanes bring two players off the edge with tremendous speed in Anthony Chickillo and Shavon Green. Klein was efficient in the passing game last year completing 12 of 18 passes for 133 yards and two scores. He will need to have that same efficiency this week if the Wildcats want to win, but there might be a little room for error.

Miami showed weakness in their secondary last week against BC by getting torched for 441 yards through the air. But in order for K-State to be able to exploit that as well, the offensive line must give Klein ample time to read the defense. K-State's offensive productivity will be reliant on their line in the trenches this week.

Setting last week aside, Golden realizes this is the game to find out if their run defense is better than their passing defense.

"We'll find out Saturday," the second-year coach said. "I thought we were tough in short yardage situations -- that wasn't the case last year.

"I thought we were stronger up front. We'll see if we can do a better job to stop this attack. It was excellent a year ago."

The other matchup, Miami's offensive line versus K-State's defensive line, will be a completely different look than a year ago.

In their season opener last week, the Hurricanes had great balance offensively behind their massive offensive line. Quarterback Stephen Morris threw for 207 yards and the team combined for 208 rushing yards in their 41-32 win. The offensive line was the difference as the Hurricanes average 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds up front. That size and skill stood out to Snyder.

"They are substantially sizeable, but what most people seem to realize in addition to the size they are a pretty athletic group as well," he said. "That really magnifies the things that they can do with their offensive line and consequently their total package.

"They can get lineman outside and pull them, create additional blockers and that just adds another dimension to their offense. It creates problems."

Behind that offense line, the Hurricanes will want to establish their running game as well. Senior Mike James is the starter for the team, but freshman Duke Johnson dazzled last week with a pair of 50-plus yard touchdown runs. That could bring a great challenge to the Wildcats as they are still searching for a defensive tackle to play alongside Vai Lutui. Sure, the Wildcats have middle linebacker Arthur Brown to help clean up some miscues, but in order to win the battle up front, they will have to be more active and aggressive.

The Miami running game could present a problem for K-State, but nothing is as alarming as the Wildcats' pass rush. Against Missouri State, they failed to record a sack and rarely got to the Bears' quarterback. It is a cause of concern, but they have a chance for redemption this week against a greater opponent. Adam Davis and Meshak Williams will need to get into the backfield early on in the game and wreak havoc like they did last season in order to slow down this high-speed offense.

This game, by and large, will come down to the battle in the trenches. It will be imperative for both teams to establish their presence in the opening quarter if they want to win.

It's the youth and athleticism of Miami against the experience and discipline of K-State. Let the battle begin.

Mississippi State NEWS


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