Saturday, September 16th 2017, 7.30 PM ET – A battle between two teams sitting with unbeaten 2-0 records, but at this stage, neither has faced a significant test, though Vandy’s win over Middle Tennessee is a solid result. This Big 12 vs SEC matchup should reveal a lot about where each may be headed going forward in 2017.
Week 2 Recap
Kansas State Wildcats – Part of the appeal that led to the Wildcats being ranked prior to the start of the season was how well-rounded a team Bill Snyder has put together, to execute on both sides of the ball. They may have delivered as expected in routing the Charlotte 49ers by 55-7, but demonstrated their versatile ability to score points.
Senior quarterback Jesse Ertz again showed he’s improving as a passer while going 16 for 21 through the air, while Kansas State dominated on the ground by rushing for five touchdowns by five different ball carriers, including Ertz himself. The defense got involved as well, with safety Kendall Adams the star as he took both an interception and a fumble to the house for a pair of first half defensive touchdowns.
Vanderbilt Commodores – Vandy are off to a solid if expected start themselves. After an opening road win over Middle Tennessee by 28-6, they followed that up with a 42-0 shutout of FCS side Alabama A&M. The defense doing their job isn’t a surprise, having been the strength of the team throughout Derek Mason’s tenure as head coach. The issues have always been on offense in recent years.
So far so good though, with junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur completing 83.3% of his 18 passes for four touchdowns and no picks (seven TDs to no INTs for the season). For a quarterback with more picks (ten) than touchdown throws (nine) last year, that is promising. How indicative that may be of progress will become more clear as the Commodores enter SEC play this year, and in this first test against the Wildcats.
Keys to the Game
Shurmur staying mistake-free – The clean start continuing for the Vanderbilt quarterback will be crucial to earning a win, but won’t be easy against a side with three picks over their first two games, and featuring one of the most talented ball-playing cornerbacks around in DJ Reed. The junior had 16 pass breakups and three interceptions last year, and has added another takeaway already in 2017. This Wildcats secondary are aggressive and will pounce on any errant throws.
The return game – Part of the winning formula for Kansas State has been discipline and execution, winning the turnover battle, and impact on special teams. The latter has seen the aforementioned DJ Reed score a punt return touchdown this season already, and albeit early in the year and against lesser opposition, sit in the top five in punt return average and top 20 in kick return average. The special teams and field position battle may be slightly in the Wildcats’ favor, and in a game that could be very close, might make the difference.
Backing up the shutout – There’s not really the expectation that Vanderbilt will again keep their opponents to no points, but after a first shutout under Mason, they’ll want to continue the momentum of stifling the Kansas State offense as well. Vandy’s defense have allowed only 108 rush yards combined in their two games at 1.86 yards per attempt.
Kansas State meanwhile, have hit the end zone seven times on the ground and average nearly six yards per carry as a team behind a good offensive line, a talented sophomore in Alex Barnes, and a duel-threat quarterback in Ertz. It’s strength versus strength.
Matchup to Watch
Kansas State RB Alex Barnes vs Vanderbilt LB Emmanuel Smith – The Commodores’ middle linebacker is coming off a career game in which he totaled ten tackles. Having played sparingly throughout his college career, including at safety and nickel, the 6’2”, 240 lb senior has made a positive start toward a more active role in the center of a strong all-round defense. If he can put in a similarly good showing in this more challenging contest, it will likely require getting to know the Wildcats’ leading rusher better, in second-year back Alex Barnes.
The young runner broke out near the end of last season with a 129-yard, four touchdown performance against Baylor, following it up with 103 yards and a score the following week against in-state rivals Kansas. He’s off to a good start in 2017, with two touchdowns so far, and averaging 6.19 yards per carry last week against Charlotte.
Prediction: Kansas State 24, Vanderbilt 21
This is a very difficult game in which to attach a score and winner. Vanderbilt are arguably the more tested, having been mostly comfortable in beating a Middle Tennessee side that won against Syracuse last week. Kansas State are slight favorites with odds-makers, yet the Commodores have the home stadium advantage.
Both defenses are impressive, yet there’s playmakers on either side that could break the game open more so than expected. Overtime could be required ultimately to separate them. I’m going to side narrowly with the team from the Big 12, but it really could go either way.
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