PHOENIX — Kansas State was preparing for an all-out aerial assault from UCLA.
The Wildcats have had issues in pass defense this season and were expecting another stern test against Josh Rosen in the Cactus Bowl, but the UCLA quarterback is not expected to play in the 8 p.m. kickoff Tuesday at Chase Field.
Rosen has been recovering from a concussion suffered in the Nov. 24 game against Cal and reportedly was advised by doctors not to play in the Cactus Bowl. That would turn the Bruin offense over to redshirt freshman Devon Modster and leave K-State uncertain of what exactly to expect.
“Whichever guy plays, we will be ready,” UCLA interim coach Jedd Fisch said. “He (Modster) is very mature, very poised, very smart.”
The Bruins (6-6) average only 117.1 rushing yards a game but the Wildcats (7-5) have to be prepared for anything thrown at them by Fisch, the offensive coordinator who took over for the fired Jim Mora.
“We did well in certain aspects,” linebacker Trent Tanking said of the K-State defense, which ranked No. 6 in the Big 12 in total defense (432.0 yards a game) but No. 10 against the pass (310.2). “We stopped the run well, then the next task is to stop the pass.
“When you have quarterbacks week in and week out that can throw it on a dime and wide receivers that are faster than lightning, it’s tough to contain some of that. I thought we did a good job when it came down to the red zone to force teams to kick field goals. We had some games where we gave up more points that we should have, but overall I think we did a pretty good job.”
Out of 129 FBS teams, K-State ranked No. 128 in passing yards allowed. Four times in Big 12 games the Wildcats gave up more than 400 passing yards with another game at 380. One area where they did excel was takeaways, ranking No. 3 in the conference with a plus-10 turnover margin at 22-12 with 12 interceptions.
“Everybody does throw the ball,” K-State cornerback Duke Shelley said. “We gave up a lot of yards this year but turnovers is the thing that makes the difference. As a defense, we harp on getting turnovers to get the ball back for our offense. We don’t want to give up those yards but if we get three or four turnovers, I’m OK with that.”
That’s the factor that concerns Fisch.
“You can’t give the ball away. If you give the ball away, he’s going to win,” Fisch said of K-State coach Bill Snyder. “Possessions matter. They’re going to grind it out and won’t try to go lightning-fast like a lot of teams do in college football. You’re not going to have a million plays so you better make the most of the plays you have.”
Whoever is the UCLA quarterback, K-State’s defense will have to keep track of wide receiver Jordan Lasley who has 61 receptions for 1,136 yards and eight touchdowns in only eight games. In the past three games, after missing the previous three, Lasley had seven receptions for 162 yards, 10 for 204 and 12 for 227.
While K-State’s defense may not know exactly what is coming with UCLA’s unsettled quarterback situation, the Bruin defense certainly knows what to expect. The Wildcats have displayed a more dynamic passing game since redshirt freshman Skylar Thompson took over at quarterback to deliver four wins in the last five games, but K-State likes to establish the running game and that is where UCLA is vulnerable.
“You know there isn’t anything magical they’re going to do,” said Kenny Young, the Bruins’ All-Pac 12 linebacker. “They don’t try to trick you or do anything crazy. What you see on film is what you get and it’s upon us as a defense to stop them. The physical aspect is what they do.”
Thompson completed 48 of 76 passes for 662 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions as the third quarterback in line after injuries to Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton. Led by sophomore running back Alex Barnes, the Wildcats average 186.7 rushing yards a game but will be without All-Big 12 right tackle Dalton Risner, who will miss the game with a shoulder injury.
“Kansas State is a team that is physical,” UCLA defensive back Adarius Pickett said. “I think they’re going to try to establish the run to open up the pass. At times on film they’re going to see we struggled with the run game. I think that’s where they’re going to try to hit us at, even though the last three games I think we did a tremendous job.
“We need to stop the run and make them pass the ball. Once we make it a one-dimensional game, it’s going to be really fun for us in the secondary.”
The Bruins’ run defense matches K-State’s pass defense at No. 128 nationally, giving up 282.7 yards a game.
“They bring a lot of concerns,” said UCLA defensive tackle Jacob Tuiot-Mariner. “It’s kind of different the way they run their quarterback, but the way they use their running back and linemen is kind of like Stanford with the pin-and-pull scheme. The quarterback run game will be different for us, but they’re kind of like a mixture of a lot of Pac-12 schools like Arizona and Stanford.
“They have a good run game but over this past month I’ve seen our run defense improve so I have full faith in my guys that we’re going to match up with them.”