MANHATTAN, Kan. — Neither team is where it expected to be at this point, just for different reasons, as No. 9 Oklahoma heads on the road to face Kansas State in a crucial matchup for both clubs on Saturday.
The Sooners (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) still have a shot at the College Football Playoff, although a home loss to unranked Iowa State took away much of the margin of error. Running the table might be necessary for a playoff berth.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) are facing the possibility of struggling to scrape together enough wins for bowl eligibility when they, too, came into the 2017 season with conference title aspirations and even an outside shot at the playoff. There is only one game left on the schedule — at Kansas — in which they will be clear favorites, with several toss-ups and some probable losses filling out the slate.
Oklahoma entered the season ranked No. 7 and got to as high as No. 2 after a win at Ohio State, but the loss to Iowa State undid that progress. An emotional 29-24 victory over rival Texas last week seems to have corrected the course, but coach Lincoln Riley knows Saturday’s game won’t be easy.
“(The Wildcats) bring great effort,” Riley said.
“They bring toughness. Manhattan is always a tough place to play. And I think they’re a prideful group, I’m sure they’re feeling like we did a week ago, that they didn’t put their best foot forward. I don’t want to put words into their mouth, but I know they’ll be a very motivated and hungry team to play.
“(They’re) a very well-coached team. You know what you’re gonna get with Kansas State. You get it every single time. It’s always a challenge, certainly going up there is. So we’re expecting a four-quarter fight with them, and that’s something we’ve got to be ready for.”
Not much has gone right for Kansas State. Following season-opening blowout wins against weaker non-conference opponents, K-State has lost three of its last four games. The Wildcats have seemed ill-prepared for their past two opponents, something K-State fans are not used to with Bill Snyder-coached teams.
“There are a lot of things that aren’t taking place, and that falls in my lap,” Snyder said following the latest loss, a 26-6 defeat at the hands of unbeaten TCU last week. “We were 0-for-7 or 0-for-8 on third down in the first half.”
Kansas State is averaging 208 yards per game on the ground and 186.2 yards per game through the air. Their receivers are dropping way too many catchable passes. A position considered a strength in the offseason sees walk-on Dalton Schoen leading in receiving yards (286) and touchdowns (three). He is second in catches (13).
Quarterback Jesse Ertz started strong, but he was replaced in a 40-34 double-overtime loss at Texas by Alex Delton because of an undisclosed injury. Ertz, who did not play against TCU, is completing just 55 percent of his passes. He’s still the team’s leading rusher (336 yards), but not for long, as running back Alex Barnes should pass him this game if Ertz doesn’t play.
Delton, a redshirt sophomore, started his first career game against TCU and could not get untracked. He was 11 of 29 for 146 yards and no touchdowns. A run-first quarterback, he ran for 39 yards on 19 carries.
“Alex really struggled, but he had a lot of help in that respect,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t all his fault.”
Despite the struggles, the Wildcats insist they have not lost confidence.
“We just try to stay focused,” senior defensive tackle Will Geary said. “Coach Snyder told us that he was going to do his best to get us ready for next week. It’s up to us to buy in and give it our all.”
The Sooners, led by Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield, are averaging 377.7 yards per game through the air and 197.8 on the ground. They have scored an average of 42 points per game.
Building big leads hasn’t been a recent issue. In the first half of their past three games, the Sooners have jumped ahead 28-10 on Baylor, 14-0 on Iowa State and 20-0 on Texas. Each time, the other team came back to take a fourth-quarter lead.
“If we can get the mentality right, which I think we made some strides on, and get the execution along with it, then that’s when you start to knock people out,” Riley said.