They did it.
Amid all the hoopla that proceeded the firing of Jim Mora and hiring of Chip Kelly, UCLA will be in a bowl game come Dec. 26. UCLA will face Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix.
Despite what might seem like an even matchup, the Wildcats are coming off one of the toughest schedules in the country, in which they have won four of their last five games.
Still, the Bruins are coming off an impressive win against the California Golden Bears that required some late-game heroics by the defense – and there’s always junior quarterback Josh Rosen under center to handle things on the offensive side.
Although Kelly won’t be commencing his role as the new head coach of the program in the game against Kansas State, this game will undoubtedly give him a preview of what he’ll need to do when he takes the helm.
Here’s a breakdown of Kansas State’s offensive and defensive schemes.
Kansas State’s offense
Base formation: Option
Run/pass ratio: 65/35
Strength: Consistent run game
Weakness: Getting the aerial attack going
X-factor: Quarterback Skylar Thompson
This Kansas State offense isn’t flashy or high-octane, but gets the job done and sticks to the script.
It runs the ball 65 percent of the time, and doing so has earned the team seven wins in arguably the hardest conference in college football.
Two of its five losses came against Oklahoma and Texas Christian – losing to the former by seven points.
The three other losses came from Texas, West Virginia and a subpar Vanderbilt team. Will Grier, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, let the West Virginia team that handed Kansas State its 5-point loss.
So what makes this well-oiled machine churn? Quite honestly, this team really doesn’t have a standout playmaker or star. To start off the season, coach and offensive play caller Bill Synder had one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, senior Jesse Ertz.
The senior signal caller has some serious game, as he was named to the Maxwell Award watch list – which names best all-around college football players – and two other watch lists for the nation’s top quarterbacks. However, after a 3-1 start to the year, Ertz went out for the season in Kansas State’s fifth game, which was against Texas.
So here’s where the X-factor for the Wildcats comes into play: backup quarterback Skylar Thompson.
The redshirt freshman was actually the third-stringer behind sophomore Alex Delton for three weeks after the loss to Texas, until Synder decided to let both of them play against Kansas and Texas Tech.
And after Delton suffered an injury against Texas Tech, Thompson became the starter.
The Missouri native hasn’t followed the typical narrative of a freshman quarterback heroically leading his team to victory, but the youngster still sported back-to-back wins against an Iowa State team that handed No. 2 Oklahoma its only loss of the season, and against No.19 Oklahoma State, who still sits at 9-3 after its loss to Kansas State.
The biggest threat Thompson poses is his ability to run. Synder loves option quarterbacks and lets his signal caller run freely. Ertz is fourth all-time in 100-yard rushing games for a quarterback in Kansas State history.
Thompson has put up 263 yards rushing in his limited play on 4.1 yards a carry and three rushing touchdowns.
It’s uncertain whether Delton will play, as he also suffered an injury against Kansas in the game right before its win against Texas Tech. In other words, Synder is likely to utilize Thompson even if Delton does make an unexpected recovery.
Sophomore tailback Alex Barnes has had a productive year, rushing for 702 yards and six touchdowns on a healthy 5.2 yards a carry. While he only has three games with more than 95 yards on the season, expect him to pass the triple-digit mark if the Bruins’ defense continues its sloppy play against the run.
The easiest and most obvious way to force this offense into confusion is to put pressure on Thompson in the pocket.
Although he’ll make plays with his feet, the redshirt freshman is still struggling to get a command of the offense and make a dent in the passing game. He’s thrown for just 662 yards in six games played, with only five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Kansas State’s defense
Base formation: 4-3
Blitz tendency: Medium
Strengths: Veteran linebacker core and talented secondary
Weaknesses: Pass rush
X-factor: Cornerback D.J. Reed
Kansas State’s defense has carried its team in Ertz’s absence.
This is a group with a productive linebacker core and football-savvy corners in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Tom Hayes runs a classic 4-3 scheme with the occasional extra linebacker or safety in certain situational packages.
However, one guy who probably won’t leave the field regardless of the package is linebacker Jayd Kirby. Kirby’s stat line is absolutely absurd – 93 tackles, 70 solo tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, four sacks and three astounding forced fumbles.
Having played quarterback and safety in high school, Kirby displays a legitimate knack for finding the ball at all times.
Cornerback D.J. Reed is arguably the best player on this football team. Reed is on three defensive-player-of-the-year watch lists – including the Jim Thorpe Award given to the best defensive back in college football. What makes him really special is his blazing speed, which makes him a threat on special teams as well.
Watch out for Reed as he takes on redshirt junior wide receiver Jordan Lasley, who’s been on a tear in the past weeks. Lasley has amassed 1,000 yards receiving in just eight games, including back-to-back 200-yard-receiving games against USC and Cal to cap off the regular season.
Reed has notched four interceptions on the year, and cornerback Duke Shelley has two at the other corner spot, adding four tackles for loss and 11 pass breakups on the year.
The safety duo of Kendall Adams and Denzel Goolsby round out the secondary, combining for five more interceptions, 135 tackles and seven pass breakups.
The biggest hole on this defense lies in its pass rush.
The unit has registered 24 sacks on the year, with defensive tackle Will Geary leading the team with just four and a half. Besides him and Kirby, there really isn’t a staunch guy in the middle who can wreak havoc on offensive lines, or a prominent edge rusher who could cause the pocket to collapse quickly.
Rosen will need to take advantage of all the time he gets in the pocket and be cautious in attempting difficult throws against a turnover-hungry secondary. Otherwise, it could be a long day for offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jedd Fisch and company.