Here is everything you need to know about the Cactus Bowl game in Phoenix, Arizona between the Kansas State Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins in our preview and prediction.
Date: Tuesday, December 26th, 2017, 8:00 PM C.T., Chase Field, Phoenix, Arizona
TV: ESPN | Jason Benetti (play-by-play), Jordan Rodgers (analyst), Olivia Harlan (sideline)
Radio: K-State Sports Network | Wyatt Thompson (Play-by-Play) Stan Weber (Analyst) Matt Walters (Sidelines)
Satellite Radio: Sirius 80, XM 80
Fun facts: Despite all their recent success under Bill Snyder, Kansas State will try to win consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1999-2000. K-State is 1-2 all-time against UCLA as the two teams have met three times since 2009.
Josh Rosen, quarterback
Rosen is likely headed for the NFL Draft where he is expected to be a top 5 draft pick. He led the Pac-12 with 341 passing yards per game (he also is now first all-time on UCLA’s single-season passing yards list), while completing 63% of his passes with 26 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. For those of us who aren’t watching much Pac-12 after dark, this will be the best look we will have at Rosen, who will also likely be playing in front of several NFL scouts.
Kenny Young, linebacker
Young leads the team with 101 tackles and his 9.2 tackles per game is second in the Pac-12. He will need to help a front seven that has been awful against the run this season and will need to improve on that to have any chance to win this game against the Wildcats.
Kansas State Wildcats
Alex Barnes, running back
When Barnes got the ball, he usually ran it effectively. He only averaged 58 rushing yards per game, but at a good clip of 5.2 yards per carry. But now Barnes gets to go up against a horrible run defense. He had an up-and-down season, with back-to-back 100-yard games against Oklahoma and Kansas, but then a total of 51 yards the next two games. He rushed for 86 yards against Oklahoma State, which was followed up by a 23-yard rushing performance against Iowa State.
Will Geary, defensive tackle
Geary is the Wildcats’ team leader in sacks with 3.5 and someone is going to have to try and get some pressure on Josh Rosen. UCLA gave up 29 sacks on the season, which was middle of the pack in the Pac-12. But pressuring Rosen will take some pressure off of K-State’s secondary, or at least help them out.
Kansas State’s secondary
The Wildcats gave up 310 passing yards per game, which was dead last in the Big 12 conference. Now they have to go up against a potential top 5 NFL Draft pick? Yikes. Jordan Lasley dealt with injuries this season, but the 6’1” wide receiver averages 142 receiving yards per game, but he’s only played in eight games this season. He would be, far and away, the Pac-12 receiving yards per game leader, but he does not qualify. That title currently belongs to another UCLA wide out in Darren Andrews (86 YPG). Good luck to D.J. Reed & Co. in the secondary.
But, when it doesn’t go well for Rosen, it’s usually in bunches. UCLA lost all three games where the quarterback threw at least two touchdowns. Kansas State was able to force turnovers this season, finishing second in the Big 12 with a +10 turnover margin.
UCLA stopping the run
As noted above, the Bruins didn’t stop the run all season long, giving up an absurd 283 rushing yards per game. Alex Barnes, Dalvin Warmack and quarterback Skylar Thompson should be able to have a field day against this defense. K-State finished third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in rushing offense and there’s plenty of reason to believe that Bill Snyder will pound away in the ground attack in this match up.
This is the toughest part of predicting bowl games. When coaches turn over, is there too much chaos to properly prepare (see SMU the other night against Louisiana Tech), or are players extra motivated to impress their new coach, even if he’s just watching? The Bruins will play under interim coach Jedd Fisch and he has made it clear that this will be the 2017 Bruins playbook, not the 2018 Bruins under Kelly.
That’s fine, but don’t forget that part of the reason Jim Mora is gone is that this team was sloppy. The Bruins were -9 in turnover margin and were the second most penalized team in the Pac-12 conference (over 75 YPG). So, what’s it going to be? A sloppy performance to close out the unofficial end to the Jim Mora era? Or a team trying to impress its new head coach?
Kansas State 35, UCLA 28
There is reason to believe this could be a pretty fun match up as both teams’ offensive strengths play into their opponents’ defensive weakness. It’s just a matter of which defense has more trouble with the other team’s offense. With the way Kansas State ended the season and the stability they bring in vs. the issues in Westwood, I like the Wildcats to pull off a win. Skylar Thompson’s confidence skyrocketed towards the end of the season and the dual-threat QB will give a Kansas State team that returns the vast majority of its starters for next season plenty of optimism and momentum for the 2018 season.