Kansas State heads into Austin on Saturday for what amounts to a defacto Big 12 semifinal game. Whichever team loses this game will have an additional conference loss and will lose the tiebreaker. It’s crazy to think that a 10-2 Texas team could possibly not make the Big 12 Championship game, but it is a reality should they lose. The Wildcats have been playing as well as anyone in the country since losing to Oklahoma State October 6th. Without Quinn Ewers, Texas must play a complete game in all three phases. Let’s look at three keys to victory in this Big 12 semifinal for the Longhorns.
Coming Away With Points in the Red Zone
It’s no secret that Texas has struggled in the red zone this year. In 33 red zone trips Texas has scored just 16 touchdowns. That ranks 120th out of 133 teams in the country. They have kicked 10 field goals and had 7 red zone possessions end in 0 points. Under 80% of their red zone possessions have resulted in points. That is good for 100th in the country. Those numbers are eye-opening and obviously not good enough.
Outside of the Oklahoma game where they had three red zone trips result in three points, it has not cost Texas much… yet. Texas lost 34-30 to Oklahoma, clearly the woes in the red zone cost them the game there. This week will be a game where leaving points on the field will cost Texas dearly. That means Steve Sarkisian needs to view it as three attempts to punch it in at the goal line and not four attempts like he’s approached it as of late. Kicking the field goal and taking the three points in the red zone isn’t what he wants to do, but three is greater than zero. Points may be at a premium on Saturday and Sark needs to treat it that way.
Longhorns Must Stop the Run
It’s no secret Kansas State will want to run the ball early and often. Since losing to Oklahoma State where starting quarterback Will Howard struggled throwing three interceptions, they have inserted talented freshman quarterback Avery Johnson in certain packages. Johnson is a run first quarterback but is able to pass as well. Following Oklahoma State, Kansas State went to Lubbock to face Texas Tech and Johnson went 8-9 for 77 yards through the air and 13 carries for 90 yards and five rushing touchdowns on the ground.
Since Johnson has been getting more snaps post Oklahoma State, Kansas State is averaging more than 260 yards rushing and over 5 yards a carry each game. If Texas allows five yards a carry on Saturday they have no chance to win the game. Kansas State will try and do what Wyoming did to Texas, which is kill the clock by running the ball and limiting the number of possessions for Texas. If Texas can stop the run it will go a long way towards winning the game. If they can’t it will be a long afternoon in DKR.
Winning the Turnover Battle is Crucial
Winning the turnover battle is something that is always important no matter the opponent. That is emphasized even more when your starting quarterback is out. In Maalik Murphy’s first career start he did a serviceable job but he can’t have the turnovers he did in the BYU game. Murphy’s fumble happened at the BYU 11-yard line, taking 3 if not 7 points off the board for Texas. His interception happened at midfield which definitely could have ended in at least three points for Texas. Luckily for the Longhorns, their defense picked up the slack and they still won handily 35-6. If Murphy struggles holding onto the ball, Sarkisian may give Arch Manning a shot.
These teams matchup pretty evenly with Texas not having Quinn Ewers. That being said the home field and overall talent probably gives Texas a slight edge. That edge is very slight and the easiest path to victory for Kansas State is winning the time of possession battle and the turnover battle, with the latter being most important. If the Texas offense just holds onto the ball and doesn’t lose the game, the defense is more than capable of holding up their end of the bargain. Texas will need complimentary football to beat a gritty Kansas State team.