MANHATTAN — Six games into the season, the Kansas State Wildcats finally flexed their offensive muscles last week in a big way.
Led by junior tailback Alex Barnes' career-high 250 rushing yards and three touchdowns, they rolled up 319 yards on the ground — easily a season best — in a 37-34 loss at Baylor.
The question now, after gashing the worst run defense in the Big 12, is whether the Wildcats can put together a repeat performance against the best.
"That's a huge challenge, then and there," K-State offensive tackle Dalton Risner said of the homecoming matchup at 11 a.m. Saturday against Oklahoma State at Snyder Family Stadium. "They're averaging holding teams to only about 117 yards a game in the rush, and we've got to go out and have a game like Baylor and rush for 300."
The matchup of strength vs. strength could have huge implications for K-State, which fell to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big 12 with the Baylor loss. Especially against an Oklahoma State (4-2, 1-2) team that ranks 13th nationally in total offense with 523.3 yards per game.
The longer the Wildcats can keep OSU off the field, the better.
Clearly, the focus for Oklahoma State's defense now is on Barnes, who with his performance against Baylor moved into third place in the league at 101.2 yards per game. That, by extension, puts the onus on a veteran K-State line that has put together two straight solid outings.
"If we don't block for him, it's going to be hard for Alex to do that," said Risner, the Wildcats' all-conference right tackle. "He can't get through 11 guys every single play, so can the offensive line do that again? I'm fully confident in that.
"Can Alex Barnes do that again? By all means, if we give him the blocks and give him the creases, Alex Barnes can definitely do that."
One encouraging trend for K-State is Oklahoma State's performance against the run in league play, which drops to eighth with an average of 161.7 yards allowed in three games. Texas Tech had 224 yards on the ground in a 41-17 victory and Iowa State managed 140 last week.
"They run their quarterback a lot," Oklahoma State linebacker Justin Phillips said of K-State. "They have some big dudes up front that they utilize and tighten up a bit.
"They just get behind their big guys and try to run the ball."
Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown last week against the Cowboys, but he also threw for 318.
Though Barnes was the workhorse, K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson did break a 52-yard touchdown run against Baylor. But if backup Alex Delton is still unavailable — he missed the Baylor game with an undisclosed injury — that could limit Thompson's running opportunities.
"We don't run him as much as we might otherwise," K-State coach Bill Snyder said of the need to protect Thompson. "But we have to have that phase of the game, so that will not change.
"Maybe not quite as dynamic, but we'll still utilize that. Even if it's not part of the quarterback run game, you've got to have the ball in his hands anyway. Whether he's throwing it or handing off or running option, etc., he has a chance to get hit."
Though Oklahoma State has been susceptible to the pass, allowing 272.5 yards per game for ninth place in the Big 12, it also boasts two of the league's top pass rushers. Jordan Brailford is No. 1 with eight sacks and Jarrell Owens tied for third with four.
"We've got to protect, keep them away from Skylar, and then we've got to be able to run the ball," Risner said. "So it's a huge challenge, but we're more than up for it."
On the other side, Oklahoma State features a balanced attack, leading the Big 12 in rushing with 213.5 yards a game while averaging 309.8 yards through the air. Justice Hill is second in the conference in rushing with 107.2 yards per game, and quarterback Taylor Cornelius is third in passing with 305 yards.
K-State is ninth in the league in total defense, allowing 422 yards per game, but sixth in scoring defense, giving up just 27.2 points.