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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bob Lutz: Signs points to Arkansas — right where K-State wants to be

BY BOB LUTZ
The Wichita Eagle

ARLINGTON, Texas — Everybody I know is going back and forth on this Cotton Bowl matchup between Kansas State and Arkansas.

You don't have to look hard to find reasons why K-State can win this game and it starts with Bill Snyder and his simpatico relationship with junior quarterback Collin Klein.

But it's not difficult to find evidence of an Arkansas win, either. The Razorbacks do, after all, play in the big, bad SEC and are considered the third-best team from that esteemed football powerhouse. The other two, FYI, will play Monday night in New Orleans for a national championship.

Unlike most bowl games, especially of the non-BCS variety, this game has meaning. K-State would love to stick a cherry on top of a totally-unexpected 10-2 regular season that has included many hairpin turns.

And Arkansas has work to do if it wants to get into the same league — not just the same conference — with Alabama and LSU, who beat the Razorbacks by a combined score of 79-31 this season. Arkansas bullied the rest of the SEC this season, but when it ran into someone its own size, the results weren't good.

These are teams that could come back even stronger next season. Or they could regress slightly. Friday's game could be that little nudge in either direction for both.

If you're Kansas State, you're secure in knowing Klein is on your side. Klein has more intangibles than your best dream and has proven time and time again that if there's a way to win, he'll find it.

The Wildcats were in every second of football they played this season, except for a terrible second half against Oklahoma. That one got away, but otherwise Klein has been great at keeping his team in the hunt and eventually making the kill.

There isn't a player in college football who came from this kind of obscurity to become the star of his team. Without Klein, where would K-State be? Definitely not playing in January.

There is no other quarterback in the country like Klein, who has rushed the football 42 more times (293) than he has passed it. He admitted the other day that the month off since K-State's final regular-season game, against Iowa State on Dec. 3, has helped his body heal. But he also said the rigors of carrying the football as often as he has just isn't that big of a deal.

OK, Collin, if you say so.

He leads K-State with 1,099 rushing yards but Arkansas would be wise not to go to sleep on his passing skills. Klein is getting better and better with his arm. We know Snyder, K-State's coach, loves to throw in some new wrinkles in bowl games — which are modernized old wrinkles that he's had in his playbook forever — and his trust in Klein makes it likely some of those wrinkles will come in the passing game.

It's that Arkansas passing game, though, that has to be keeping the K-State defensive coaches on the edge of their seats as they finish preparations.

The Razorbacks are lethal and K-State has the nation's No. 105 pass defense. Arkansas averages 307.8 passing yards and the Wildcats allow 267.3 yards. K-State hasn't been much when it comes to rushing passers or guarding receivers and if that hasn't changed over the course of a month, it's difficult to imagine the Razorbacks not putting up a bunch of points.

You've seen how many of these bowl games have gone. For whatever reason, offenses are chewing up yardage and piling up points. Arkansas is capable of both.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson has four receivers with 492 or more yards, led by Jarius Wright's 1,029 and 11 touchdowns. Wilson, a redshirt junior, has waited three seasons for this opportunity to start at Arkansas and is making the most of it. He's the SEC's most lethal passer and it's anybody's guess as to how the K-State secondary will combat him.

Kansas State is, of course, a 7 1/2-point underdog. I say "of course" because the Wildcats have been a common underdog throughout the season, causing the folks who decide the odds to consistently throw their hands into the air.

When you see that number — 7 1/2 — doesn't it make you think K-State is right where it wants to be?

The Wildcats have been an overachiever for so long now that it's not even right, or fair, to think of them in that light. Yet the boys in Las Vegas continually give K-State a mountain to climb.

The evidence points to an Arkansas victory. The Razorbacks' passing game against the K-State secondary looks like the biggest mismatch of the game and more than enough reason to think Arkansas can win this game handily.

The Hogs have the better athletes. They play in a better conference. There's something about that SEC by their name that adds to their credibility.

But this is Kansas State we're talking about. This is a Wildcats team that loves to take logic and crumple it into a big ball.

It's a team that defies its shortcomings and rises up, as evidenced by eight wins within one score, the most ever among BCS automatic qualifier schools. Kansas State played Eastern Kentucky within three points (a win) and Oklahoma State within seven (a loss).

There is no rhyme nor reason to a lot of what goes on with the K-State football team. Wildcats fans have learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride, never knowing what is ahead.

The conventional wisdom is that it could be a long night for the Wildcats at Cowboys Stadium on Friday night.

Well, you don't take conventional wisdom to the bank. If you doubt that Kansas State will find a way to make this game close with a chance to pull it out at the end, then you just haven't been paying attention.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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