Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against Southern Illinois on Sept. 11, 2021, in Manhattan, Kan. Kansas State won 31-23 (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
The Kansas State Wildcats aren’t afraid of Carson Strong.
“We are ready for the test,” Kansas State safety Jahron McPherson told the Wichita Eagle this week as the Wildcats prepared to host the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday (11 a.m., streamed on ESPN-Plus) at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas. “We are going to come out bullets flying. We aren’t backing down to anything.”
The Wolf Pack is favored by two points in the matchup of the two unbeaten (2-0) teams. This is the first time Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference is considered an underdog to an unranked non-conference opponent at home in three decades, according to the Wichita Eagle.
“We are going to face a really good Nevada team,” Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said. “They are a tremendous offensive team with a really good quarterback.”
Strong has passed for 693 yards and six touchdowns in the Pack’s first two games, victories over California (22-17) on the road and Idaho State (49-10) at Mackay Stadium. The junior has thrown for 33 touchdowns over the last two seasons (just 11 games) and is being touted as a possible first-round NFL draft pick in 2022.
“He can really sling it from hash to sideline,” McPherson said. “He is what everybody says he is.”
Strong has already beaten two Power Five schools (Purdue in 2019 and Cal this year) in his three-year Pack career. A win on Saturday will give the Pack its first season in school history with two victories over Power Five programs in the same regular season, though the 2010 team beat Cal in the regular season and Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“They (Nevada) want to throw it all over the yard,” Klieman said. “He’s (Strong) seen so much and played so many snaps. It’s not easy to fool a kid like that.”
Kansas State has beaten Stanford (24-7) and Southern Illinois (31-23) this year and has allowed an average of just 254.5 yards a game. The Wildcats also allow opponents just 2.2 yards per rush and have given up just seven total points in the second half. Nevada has allowed just six points in the second half.
The Wolf Pack offense, though, is averaging 35 points and 479 yards a game. The Pack running backs have carried the ball just 37 times this season while the quarterbacks have thrown 85 passes. Kansas State’s running backs, led by Deuce Vaughn (39 carries, 244 yards, four touchdowns), have 61 attempts and their quarterbacks have thrown 58 passes.
“They like to run the football,” Nevada coach Jay Norvell said of the Wildcats. “It’s always a challenge playing a physical team like Kansas State. If they can run the ball successfully it makes it a lot easier for them offensively. There’s no secret. It’s going to be a physical game.”
The Wolf Pack, Klieman said, plays a very physical passing game.
“They are very similar to Stanford as far as big-body wide receivers that come up with 50-50 balls and back-shoulder fades,” said Klieman, a defensive back at Northern Iowa when Norvell was a wide receivers coach for the Panthers in 1988. “You throw it up in the area and they find a way to come down with them. We have to find a way to come up with some of those 50-50 balls. But you are getting a really good quarterback (Strong) throwing it up to them.”
Kansas State’s quarterback situation is in transition right now. Starter Skylar Thompson suffered a knee injury against Southern Illinois last week and will miss at least the next handful of games. Sophomore Will Howard, who also replaced an injured Thompson last season, will start at quarterback against the Wolf Pack.
“He got some experience last year and I’m sure he’s learned from that,” Norvell said of Howard. “So it’s not like he’s a guy going in there who hasn’t played. I don’t think it is going to change what they do offensively very much.”
Howard was 8-of-17 for 76 yards and an interception last week against Southern Illinois. Last year the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder passed for 1,178 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions over seven starts.
“Last year I don’t know if his skill set was as good as it is now,” Klieman said. “He’s almost 240 pounds. He’s stronger. He’s more aware of what we’re tying to do offensively.”
Howard has actually started more games (seven) the past two seasons combined than Thompson (five).
“This isn’t our first rodeo,” Howard told the Wichita Eagle this week. “We’ve been here before. Last year gave me a lot of experience. I feel like I’m a different player physically. I have a good feeling about this weekend.”
“We have all the confidence in the world in (Howard),” Kansas State wide receiver Landry Weber said.
It is likely the Wildcats will rely heavily on Vaughn on Saturday. The 5-6, 173-pound sophomore ran for 124 yards and a touchdown against Stanford and 120 yards and three touchdowns against Southern Illinois. A year ago as a freshman he ran for 642 yards and seven touchdowns. In his final two games of the year he ran for 102 yards against Baylor and 125 against Texas. Norvell coached with Vaughn’s father Chris (now a Dallas Cowboys scout) while at Texas in 2015.
“He’s an underrated back,” said Klieman of Vaughn. “People think he’s a terrific scat back. But he’s also terrific between the tackles. He finds a way to get the tough yards. He’s a powerful guy with a low center of gravity. I’d give him the ball an awful lot and let him roll a little bit.”
Norvell is very familiar with the Kansas State program, having coached against the Wildcats as an assistant with Texas (2015), Oklahoma (2008-14), Nebraska (2004-06) and Iowa State (1995-97). Norvell has a record of 7-6 against Kansas State as an assistant, 4-2 in Manhattan. All but two of those 13 games were against Kansas State while Bill Snyder was the Wildcats’ head coach. Snyder was Iowa’s offensive coordinator when Norvell was an Iowa defensive back in the 1980s.
“I have a ton of respect for that program,” Norvell said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us. I’ve had an opportunity to coach a lot of games in Manhattan and I know what a great atmosphere it is.”