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November 9, 2012

Game Up Close: Driving on

Although the record might not indicate it this season, it's tough to win on the road in the Big 12 Conference. Whether it's the simple change of venue or the noisy crowd heckling the opposing team, coaches from around the league will tell you, it's never easy.
Running the football could be a cause of concern for TCU come Saturday. The Horned Frogs don't have a premier back and they pick up a mediocre 162 yards per game on the ground. Plus, they have lost 14 fumbles on the season. B.J. Catalon and Matthew Tucker are the primary ball carriers, but neither of average more than 45 yards per game. The reason for concern is because K-State is coming off one of its best rush defensive performances of the year. The Wildcats currently rank ninth nationally against the run and they held Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle, the Big 12's leading rusher, to just 43 yards on 15 carries and a fumble. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin has the ability to make plays with his feet, but it won't be enough to make a difference in this one.
Big Advantage: K-State
With Collin Klein on the field, K-State is one of the most dangerous running teams in the country. And even when he is not, the Wildcats can get the job done. Behind the legs of Klein, John Hubert and Angelo Pease, K-State rushes for nearly 225 yards per game. However, this will be another tough test as the Horned Frogs rank eighth nationally by allowing less than 100 yards per contest. They are an aggressive team with a solid front seven that will force the Wildcats to pick up some tough yards on first and second down. It will be up to Hubert and Pease to get it going early in this contest if the Wildcats want to have success throughout the game. TCU does have a stout defense, but they have been vulnerable late in games. That should favor the Wildcats and their ability to wear teams down. Besides, no one has been able to stop K-State's rushing attack at any point this season.
Advantage: K-State
Since being named the starting quarterback, TCU's Trevone Boykin has been good. And in last weekend's double overtime thriller against West Virginia, the freshman had one of his most efficient games as the primary signal caller. Boykin completed 12 of 29 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Horned Frogs' victory in Morgantown. On the downside, Boykin is just 3-3 as the starter and has thrown seven interceptions. He will need to be careful against K-State's secondary this week because the Wildcats are great at forcing turnovers. They forced five last week against Oklahoma State, including four interceptions. Boykin will have to avoid making big mistakes if TCU wants to keep this game close.
Advantage: K-State
Through two-plus quarters last week, K-State's Collin Klein proved why he is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football. The senior completed 16 of 22 passing attempts for 245 yards against Oklahoma State before being sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Klein continues to impress this season and he'll need to be on point once again this Saturday because TCU has a good secondary that ranks second in the country with 16 interceptions. Look for Klein to connect with several different receivers in this one to keep the Horned Frogs' strong secondary honest and force their weaker linebackers to spread out into coverage. If Klein keeps playing on top of his game, this offense will be hard to stop.
Advantage: K-State
Just when you thought K-State's kick returners had been kept in check during Big 12 play, Tyler Lockett delivered when the sophomore took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter against Oklahoma State. With Lockett and Thompson fielding kicks, the Wildcats remain one of the feared return units in the country, ranking second nationally in punt returns and third in kickoff returns. There were some miscues last week, though. K-State allowed the Cowboys to take a kickoff back for a touchdown and Anthony Cantele missed his second field goal of the season. If K-State can correct their mistakes, this is the biggest area they can exploit TCU this weekend.
Big Advantage: K-State
All eyes will be on K-State quarterback Collin Klein to see whether the Heisman Trophy frontrunner will be ready to play against conference newcomer TCU. But given the tone of K-State coach Bill Snyder this week, there is no reason not to be optimistic about the Wildcats' star player. Both teams won last weekend, but in a different fashion. K-State is coming off a physical win against Oklahoma State while TCU is coming off an emotional overtime win over struggling West Virginia. TCU coach Gary Patterson might roll the dice to try and upset the Wildcats, but Snyder, as always, will have his team prepared. With conference and national title hopes still at stake, it's hard to believe this experienced K-State team will slip up against the young, but talented Horned Frogs, even if it is on the road and in a tough environment.
Advantage: K-State
K-State BY 10.5

With that said, one of the easiest ways to better your chances of winning on the road is to take the crowd out of the game, and the quickest way to do that is to convert on third down when the fans are at their loudest.

Through nine games this season, Kansas State has been quite good when it comes to third-down conversions. The Wildcats have converted 52 of 100 third down opportunities, which ranks seventh nationally, after converting 82 of 195 (42 percent) attempts in 2011.

"It's a vital statistic in my eyes," K-State coach Bill Snyder said on Tuesday. "There are times when it doesn't happen the way you want it to happen and you may still have success.

"I don't think there is a number statistic that, collectively, makes a difference. All of the other things that we talk about, like turnovers, would probably take a higher ranking from my vantage point, but I think 50 percent is a substantial number in this day and age."

During Big 12 play this season, the Wildcats have moved the chains or scored on, or after, 34 of the team's 69 third down plays and 21-of-40 on the road. They converted 7-of-14 (50 percent) in a 24-19 win at then-No. 6 Oklahoma on Sept. 22, 8-of-17 (47 percent) in a 27-21 victory at Iowa State on Oct. 13 and 6-of-9 (67 percent) in a 55-14 rout at then-No. 13 West Virginia on Oct. 20.

No. 3 K-State, which boasts its highest-ever ranking at No. 2 in the BCS standings, will need to have similar success on third down when it travels to Fort Worth, Texas to take on new conference foe TCU on Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium at 6 p.m.

It's easier said than done, though.

So far, TCU's defense has been in complete lockdown mode during third down as the Horned Frogs rank fifth nationally in third down defense. They have allowed teams to move the chains just 31 percent (26 of 85) of the time in conference play and 27 percent (35 of 129) overall.

"I think they play extremely hard," Snyder said. "They are extremely well-coached. They get themselves in the right positions so it shows some discipline as well. They are a physical and athletic front and just fly around.

"They're just good at what they do."

On top of that, Gary Patterson's bunch ranks second in the country in forcing an average of 6.2 three-and-outs per game, trailing only Florida State, who forces 6.7 three-and-outs each contest.

"I think they are an aggressive defense," Snyder added. "They play hard. You see the constant improvement. They have youth and that's what happens with youth. They get better and better as they go along and I've certainly seen that.

"They run around good, they're physical up front with good range, run well in the back end and schematically, they're good as well."

For TCU, it all starts with stopping the run. The Horned Frogs give up just 96.6 rushing yards, which is atop of the Big 12 and eighth nationally. Their speedy defensive line of Stansly Maponga, Chucky Hunter, Davion Pierson and Devonte Fields stay active throughout the game and force teams to throw against their strong secondary, particularly on third down.

"I think that will definitely be a challenge for us," senior tight end Travis Tannahill said. "It's a challenge we're looking forward to."

If there is a team that is ready for the challenge, it's undefeated K-State, and if there is a coach that can maneuver around it, it's Snyder.

TCU might be good at what they do, but by no means have they played a team like they will come Saturday. Behind the legs of running backs John Hubert and Angelo Pease and senior quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats rank fifth in scoring offense at 44.3 points per game and rank 18th nationally in rushing offense by gaining nearly 225 yards per contest.

K-State's offense is methodical, but deadly and explosive, but efficient. Week after week, Snyder and the Wildcats prove their worth.

Sure, TCU's statistic of forcing three-and-outs might be alarming, but K-State's ability to avoid punting after three plays from scrimmage is just as scary. The Wildcats have just 14 possessions where that has happened. And that's not just in the conference, either. That's all season.

It's no secret K-State thrives on moving the chains and controlling the clock and they will look for that to continue this weekend.

"It's very important because you never want to go three-and-out to put your defense in a bad situation," Pease said. "We try to get at least five or six yards on first down to make third down easier."

That's the key to the game. If the Wildcats want to win another road game on Saturday, they will need to gain positive yards on first down to make it easier on Klein and the offense to convert on third down.

"Third downs have a lot to do with first downs, coach always says," Tannahill noted. "Getting a good first down play is very important for us."

It's tough to win on the road and K-State knows it. But in 2012, home field advantage has seemed almost non-existent in the Big 12, as road teams have captured victories in 16 of the first 29 conferences games. K-State, with three conference road wins, will look to add another notch to the belt on Saturday and TCU will try to escape with their first conference home win after falling to Iowa State and Texas Tech earlier this season.

This matchup will be decided on third downs throughout the game. If K-State can find a way to gain positive yards on first down, move the chains and silence the amped up crowd, they will put themselves in a great position to stay perfect and match their win total from a season ago.

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