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November 4, 2011

What to Watch: In the air again

They helped land him on the list of semifinalists for the Thorpe Award, but Nigel Malone was never able to properly enjoy the two interceptions he made against Oklahoma.

No. 17 Kansas State at No. 3 Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State tailback Joseph Randall is certainly capable. The sophomore has gained 842 yards so far this season and is complimented by backup Jeremy Smith, who will also receive carries this weekend. Together, the duo has accounted for 1,344 yards and 23 touchdowns. That said, stopping the run will be one of the least of Kansas State's worries, as Bill Snyder's defense has shown itself capable of slowing top-tier running backs. If the Wildcats can find a way to make the Cowboys one-dimensional, the task of disrupting a potent passing game will become more manageable.
There's no guesswork here. K-State will look to control time of possession by running quarterback Collin Klein early and often. The junior has been effective carrying the football in every game this year, and has the necessary capabilities to exploit an Oklahoma State defense that has been susceptible to long runs. Klein, along with halfback John Hubert, will have room to run this Saturday, but will need to maximize it on every touch.
Here, again, lies the problem for the Wildcats. Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and his favorite target Justin Blackmon are yet to be slowed this season, and a Wildcat secondary coming off a lackluster performance could be in trouble for a second consecutive week. The Wildcats will need to pressure Weeden often this weekend, as an undersized secondary will be defenseless if he has time to find his long and speedy receivers in space.
As long as K-State doesn't again fall behind early, its passing attack should be better than it was against the Sooners a week ago, but even then, it's by no means a juggernaut. Oklahoma State is allowing opponents 270 passing yards per game this season, and Collin Klein has shown the ability to make smart decisions with the football. The Cowboys rank first nationally with 17 interceptions, however, so Klein will have to be close to perfect when he attempts to challenge the middle of Oklahoma State's secondary.
K-State has shown an equal number of big plays and big gaffs on special teams this season, but the positives have outweighed the negatives as of late. Return man Tyler Lockett, who has scored a pair of special teams touchdowns on the year, has established himself as a weapon in the kicking game and could hold the key to an upset win in Stillwater. On the other side of things, Oklahoma State punter Quinn Sharp is one of the best players at his position and has the ability to not-so-subtly change a game with field position.
Oklahoma State by 14

Instead, his mood was predictably somber following Kansas State's 58-17 loss to the Sooners last weekend. He hung his head and mumbled his way through a handful of interviews before slipping out the door. The Wildcats' undefeated season was gone, and just moments after the defense allowed the last of OU's 520 passing yards, he couldn't help but feel at least partially responsible.

"Obviously, we didn't play right," Malone said after the loss. "We didn't do what we had to do."

It's not as if K-State generated much of a pass rush in the loss, but on Monday, Coach Bill Snyder shielded his defensive front from blame, saying the gaudy passing numbers the Wildcats allowed were the products of deficiencies in the secondary. Wide receivers in red helmets ran unobstructed all afternoon and routinely turned short receptions into huge chunks of yards.

A coverage clinic it was not.

Shifting the blame is almost impossible, and K-State defensive backs aren't interested in trying. So while David Garrett admits Oklahoma's group of wideouts was the most talented unit his team has run up against this season, he cautions against dumping too much praise on the Sooners. In his opinion, last week was a total defensive letdown, not a heroic offensive effort.

"It was all us -- all us," Garrett said. "Oklahoma has some great receivers, but they did nothing special at all. That's not me trying to be disrespectful or take shots at them. They are a great team, but it was us."

The words are strong, but all indications are that Garrett and his teammates believe them. This weekend, they'll all have a chance to back them up. In the end, if Oklahoma exposed something in the Wildcat secondary, this week's opponent, No. 3 Oklahoma State, will post it in primetime for everyone with a television to see.

The challenge here is somehow greater than the one from a week ago, as the Cowboys rank fourth nationally in passing offense and second in scoring. Quarterback Brandon Weeden owns six of the top-10 passing games in school history and has thrown for a touchdown in 21 straight games.

Then there's the matter of Justin Blackmon, who many believe in the nation's top receiver. Blackmon missed last year's game against the Wildcats because of a suspension, but will bring his 9.3 catches and 104.3 yards per game with him to field this Saturday. Oklahoma's receivers were talented, sure, but K-State's secondary hasn't seen anything like this is some time.

"They throw it to him, he catches it and runs it to the end zone," Snyder said of Blackmon. "That's just what he does. Some of the best have lined up against him and tried to stop him, but have had no success doing it."

And it's not just Blackmon. Three other Oklahoma State wideouts have amassed more than 300 yards this season, and tailback Joseph Randall, a Wichita product, has caught 21 balls out of the backfield. The looks are multiple, and so in turn, has been K-State's preparation.

If last week was, indeed, an isolated letdown, Saturday represents a chance to show the world.

"I think we'll prepare a little bit different and have a different scheme for Blackmon," Malone said. "We'll be a little bit different for them."

Different would be good, as whatever K-State trotted out a week ago simply didn't work. And against another fast-paced offense with another group of elite wide receivers, change will be necessary. If not, the results will be unchanged.

"I don't know that I've seen a (quarterback-receiver) duo like these two," Snyder said, and coming from a 73-year old coaching veteran, that's saying something.

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