It’s been a while since Kansas State opened the season at home against a name opponent. Fourteen years to be exact.
Back then the Wildcats kicked off their first Big 12 season against Texas Tech. They won 21-14 and went on to a strong year that didn’t end until the Cotton Bowl.
K-State is trying to duplicate that kind of success Saturday against UCLA, and Manhattan is buzzing over the chance to watch. The game is officially sold out, and ABC will be in town to broadcast it to a national audience.
UCLA broke open a close game against K-State last year in Los Angeles to win 23-9, and the rematch should be even better. Stakes are high for both teams. In season-openers like this one, they always are.
When discussing the Bruins, there is only one place to start: injuries.
UCLA has endured plenty of them.
Out for sure are starting offensive linemen Kai Maiava, Jeff Baca and defensive end Datone Jones. Mike Harris has been suspended, Stan Hasiak was declared academically ineligible and Xavier Su’a-Filo left the team to go on a LDS Mission.
The Bruins came into training camp expecting five starters to return on the offensive line, but only Eddie Williams made it through summer practices unscathed. Up front, UCLA will be extremely depleted.
But the injury list doesn’t end there. All-American kicker Kai Forbath is questionable for the game, and quarterback Kevin Prince has been battling a tear in one of his back muscles for weeks.
For what it’s worth, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel thinks all the bad luck his players have faced has brought them together.
“Unfortunately, we have had the taste of injury around our place for a while,” he told reporters last week. “The players not only understand it, they believe in the next guy who gets the opportunity.”
In place of its normal offensive line, UCLA will start five seniors up front. Not bad for a group of backups.
The Bruins’ healthy starters will be ready to go. Rahim Moore grabbed 10 interceptions last year and Taylor Embree is a quality wide receiver. Neuheisel is also an experienced coach who will put together a good gameplan.
A year ago, he took UCLA into Tennessee’s massive stadium and came away with a win. Snyder Family Stadium may be rocking with Harley Day and the excitment of a new season, but the Bruins won’t be intimidated by the environment.
UCLA is coming off a 7-6 season in which it won the EagleBank Bowl. This year it has added a Pistol formation to its offense.
“Defensively, the experience and the talent in their back end and the secondary is obvious to most,” said K-State coach Bill Snyder. “They were an awfully good football team last year. Against us, I thought they played awfully well.
“They really moved the ball well against us last year offensively. There’s not much difference in terms of their ability to do that.”
About Kansas State
The Wildcats are hoping to get off to a fast start this season. A year ago, early losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and UCLA crippled their chances of reaching a bowl game. Not even a strong surge in Big 12 play could get them there.
A win against UCLA this time around will put K-State on a much better track. There aren’t many entertaining games going on across the Big 12 this week, so a victory by the Wildcats will look that much better than normal.
To achieve victory, K-State will depend on its secondary and rushing offense. But the Wildcats were strong in both areas last season against the Bruins. If they can add a strong passing game, and get some good play out of their unproven linebackers they will be in great shape.
Carson Coffman returns to the starting quarterback role, and he will have a host of new wide receivers to throw to.
For Neuheisel, though, it all comes down to Bill Snyder and Daniel Thomas.
He’s glad he’s playing K-State in the opener instead of Week Four.
“You just have to factor in the Bill Snyder factor and his ability to recruit junior college players,” Neuheisel said. “They’ve got a lot of new faces this year. I think we’re a little fortunate we get to play them in Week One, where maybe they haven’t gained as much experience as they will as they get further into the year.
“(Snyder is) a team builder. There’s no question about it.”
Thomas was tough to bring down last season. He will once again be strong this year.
“He’s a very talented running back,” Neuheisel said. “But he’s also a gifted player in what they call the Wildcat. His ability to make plays with his arm and his legs create an extra gap, because now there’s an extra ball carrier.”
“He can run you over, but he’s also elusive. (He) will be a challenge.”
When UCLA runs the ball: K-State
When K-State runs the ball: K-State
When UCLA throws the ball: K-State
When K-State throws the ball: UCLA
Special Teams: UCLA
Prediction: K-State 20, UCLA 13