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Wolf Pack Week 3 opponent preview and prediction: Kansas State Wildcats

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

After it’s one-game home stint, the Nevada Wolf Pack hit the road again to take on the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday, Sept. 18 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan.

Both teams enter 2-0. Nevada picked up victories at Cal (22-17) and home against Idaho State (49-10), while Kansas State earned wins at Stanford (24-7) and at home against Southern Illinois (31-23).

The Wolf Pack seek their second road Power 5 victory of the season after picking up just two prior road wins against Power 5 programs since the start of 2003 (Washington - ‘03, Cal - ‘12).

They haven’t, however, picked up a victory against any Big 12 team — current or former — in five games. Nevada’s most recent game against a Big 12 opponent came on Sept. 24, 2011, against Texas Tech, falling 35-34 after Sam Doege’s four-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ward with 36 seconds remaining.

Saturday also marks the first meeting between Nevada and Kansas State. The Wildcats, who are 18-15 against current Mountain West foes in their program history, are seeking their second 3-0 start under third-year head coach Chris Klieman.

Kansas State and Nevada rank No. 33 and No. 34 in the AP Top-25 rankings. The question remains: Who will be on top by the end of the week?

Let’s dive into the matchup!

Matchup: Nevada (2-0) vs. Kansas State (2-0)

When: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 11:05 a.m. PT

Where: Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhatten, Kan.

TV: ESPN+ (Big 12 Now)

Spread: Nevada -2 (William Hill)

Money line: Nevada -125, Kansas State +105

Last Meeting: None

Matchup History: First meeting

When Kansas State is on offense:

The Wildcats will be without sixth-year senior quarterback Skylar Thompson on Saturday. Thompson is out indefinitely with a knee injury, which occurred without contact while blocking for star running back Deuce Vaughn.

This is the second consecutive season where Thompson will miss significant time due to injury, missing the team’s final six games last year with a shoulder injury. He ranks among the top-10 in school history in multiple passing categories, including completions (402), passing yards (5,261) and passing touchdowns (30).

Will Howard will be the Wildcats’ starter behind center. He went 8-for-17 for 76 yards with an interception against Southern Illinois. The 6-foot-4 sophomore completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 1,178 yards, eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions in nine games (six starts) a year ago. He’s tallied 383 rushing yards — including sacks (which befuddles me why the NCAA still counts sacks against rushing totals) — on 4.1 yards per attempt with four scores in his collegiate career.

Without Thompson, Nevada must key-in on Vaughn, one of the best running backs in the Big 12. In his first two contests, the 5-foot-6 workhorse has tallied 39 carries for 244 yards and four scores — eclipsing 120 rushing yards in both performances.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Kansas State
Kansas State Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn (22) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Stanford Cardinals.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Vaughn, who posted 1,076 yards from scrimmage as a freshman in 2020, joined Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne as the only tailbacks in the FBS with at least 600 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards. That’s pretty good company, right?

Vaughn was named Freshman of the Year by 247Sports.com, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year by Big 12 coaches and a Freshman All-American by The Athletic and Football Writers Association of America, among other honors. He’s scored at least one touchdown in eight of his 12 career games.

He has nearly double the amount of carries (39) as team does receptions (20); the Wildcats run the rock on 64.6 percent of its plays (14th-most in FBS) and have recorded 58.1 percent of their yards on the ground (18th-most).

Zero Kansas State players have more than a half-dozen receptions. Malik Knowles has hauled in six for 125 yards, while Vaughn (13 yards) and Philip Brooks (102 yards) had four apiece.

Kansas State has yet to record a passing touchdown this year.

The Wildcat offensive line boasts 54 career starts between the five players, led by second-team All-Big 12 center Noah Johnson.

Through two affairs, Nevada ranks No. 48 in total defense (306.5 ypg), No. 29 in scoring defense (13.5 ppg) and T-50 in first downs allowed per game (17.5).

It’s tallied 10.0 sacks after it had 15 in the regular season last fall. Tristan Nichols, who’s not even listed on the depth chart, has a team-high three sacks — all coming last week against Idaho State — including a forced fumble, which was returned for a touchdown by two-time All-Conference defensive lineman Dom Peterson.

Peterson’s recorded just five tackles, while All-Mountain West defensive end Sam Hammond’s added four tackles with one sack.

The Wolf Pack’s two leading tacklers are starting linebackers Daiyan Henley (17 tackles) and Lawson Hall (13 tackles) — its starting two backers in its 4-2-5 base defense.

Henley has 0.5 tackle-for-loss with two pass deflections. Hall has one sack — his third in his last three games after accumulating 2.5 in his 38 games prior.

Nevada’s hard-hitting safety, Tyson Williams, last year’s second-leading tackler, is T-6 with six tackles — also tying Henley with a team-high two pass deflections. Wake Forest transfer Isaiah Essissima has recorded the Wolf Pack’s only interception this year, adding six tackles.

Safety JoJuan Claiborne and South Florida transfer Bentlee Sanders, the Pack’s nickel corner, rank No. 3 and No. 4 in tackles; Claiborne has 12 with 0.5 tackle-for-loss, while Sanders has nine total tackles.

When Nevada is on offense:

Contrary to Kansas State, the Wolf Pack beat opponents thru the air. That’s courtesy of quarterback Carson Strong, who’s recently been linked to the No. 1 in 2022 NFL Draft mock drafts by multiple pundits.

NCAA Football: Nevada at California
Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong (12) drops back to pass against the California Golden Bears.
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Strong has completed 68.3 percent of his attempts, tallying 683 yards passing with six touchdowns to just one interception. The reigning Mountain West offensive player of the year won Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after its season-opener against Cal, when he had 312 yards passing (on 39 attempts) with two touchdowns and one interception.

After his 103-yard showcase against Idaho State, Toa Taua is up to 140 rushing yards on 7.4 yards per carry. Devonte Lee has the team’s lone rushing score, in addition to his 69 yards (17 carries).

As expected, Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner and Elijah Cooks have been Strong’s biggest beneficiaries. Turner’s hauled in a team-high 12 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown, while Doubs has had 10 catches for 138 yards with a score.

Cooks has a team-high three touchdowns, in addition to his nine catches for 112 receiving yards. Sophomore wideout Tory Horton’s recorded a team-most 149 yards on just six catches.

Nevada will be without right guard Drew Cannon for the second straight game after suffering a knee injury against Cal. The Wolf Pack should have team captain Jermaine Ledbetter, who was unavailable against Idaho State due to an ankle injury.

Kansas State defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah won the Big 12’s most recent Newcomer of the Week award, tallying five tackles and three sacks in his first appearance of year. His three sacks lead the Wildcats, accounting for a-third of their sack production. Khalid Duke, opposite of Anudike-Uzomah, is second with two sacks.

Linebackers Daniel Green and Cody Fletcher opened the 2021 as the team’s top tacklers, tallying 13 apiece. Fletcher has 2.5 tackles-for-loss with one sack, while Green had one fumble recovery against Southern Illinois.

All-Big-12 safety Jahron McPherson, who led the team in tackles last year (54), is T-4 in tackles through two games with seven — though he has one sack, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and one fumble recovery.

Prediction:

This is arguably Nevada’s toughest matchup to date, though it became slightly easier without Thompson available. It goes without mentioning that the rest of Kansas State’s core pieces must step up as well against an experienced, physical Wolf Pack squad. Nevada has a chance in any game it plays due to its high-powered offense — that’s a given. All that said, Kansas State will likely try to control the time-of-possession and clock with its committed rushing attack, limiting the amount of potential opportunities Strong sees the field. The Pack need to have a near-perfect performance defensively — especially in the run game, which has been a rollar coaster — to top Kansas State on the road Saturday. Prediction: Nevada - 27, Kansas State - 21 (Season record: 1-1)