Cats, Cards Battle today on Fox Sports Net

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Kansas State faces its stiffest test of the young 2006 season today at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, as the Wildcats host No. 8/9 Louisville in an intersectional battle of 3-0 teams that could have a bearing on the national championship race.

The eyes of most of the college football world will be focused on the Little Apple today to see if in fact the Wildcats can run with the big boys from the Big East Conference. Fox Sports Net will be on hand to televise the game across its national cable network, with Joel Myers calling the action and Dave Lapham providing the analysis. Jim Knox will be checking in with reports from both sidelines. Wyatt Thompson (play-by-play) and Stan Weber (color) will call the game live on radio over the 31-station K-State Sports Network.

Today’s game also closes the books on Kansas State’s season-opening four-game non-conference slate as the Wildcats look to conclude a perfect pre-Big 12 run for the second straight year and the ninth time in the last 11 seasons.

Pulling off the usual four-game non-conference quinella, however, will definitely be easier said than done this season for K-State. Usually, the final non-league game of the year provides an opportunity for one final tune-up to workout all the kinks before entering conference play. The high-flying Cardinals, however, are stocked on both sides of the ball and will be anything but.

On paper, today’s match-up is a classic offensive vs. defense affair. The Wildcats have played some of the nation’s stingiest defense thus far in 2006 and are chalked full of confidence after holding both Florida Atlantic and Marshall without offensive touchdowns.

By contrast, Louisville enters the game with the nation’s most explosive offense and boasts an average margin of victory of nearly 40 points per game this season. Still, the Cardinals won’t have Heisman Trophy candidates Brian Brohm and Michael Bush at their disposal as both will be sidelined with major injuries.

Kansas State is coming off a 23-7 victory over Marshall that wasn’t quite as close as the final score indicated. The Wildcats dominated the stat sheet in every phase of the game, but left a number of scoring opportunities on the field that could have made the final margin of victory much more lopsided.

The K-State defense, which enters the contest ranked No. 14 nationally in total defense and No. 12 in scoring defense, kept Marshall bottled up all afternoon as the Cats held the Thundering Herd to just 142 yards while recording six tackles for losses and forcing three turnovers.

Across the field, Louisville, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in every major    offensive category, has left few scoring chances behind this year. The Cardinals crushed No. 17 Miami 31-7 last week in the Derby City and are currently averaging over 50 points and nearly 600 yards of total offense each time they take the field.

And it’s Louisville’s scoring average that provides the biggest concern. The Wildcats have averaged a respectable 30.7 points per game this season, but haven’t quite been able to hit smoothly on all cylinders just yet. If K-State can get things going on offense, and get yet another seller performance out of its defense and special teams units, things could get very interesting.

With its defense and special team units humming along in mid-season form, K-State will be looking to put all the pieces together on the offensive side of the ball. They’ve been there in fits and starts thus far in 2006 as the Wildcats rushed for over 200 yards two weeks ago vs. Florida Atlantic, then followed it up with the most
productive passing day of quarterback Dylan Meier’s career against Marshall.

As a result, the Wildcats rank 37th nationally in scoring this week and average just over 300 yards per game. Meier led the way against the Thundering Herd last week, connecting on 19-of-35 attempts for a career-high 256 yards through the air.

One Meier’s favorite targets continues to be wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who has hauled in nine receptions for 133 yards. Jermaine Moreira has also gotten into the act over the past two weeks with seven receptions for 135 yards, including a nifty 44-yard catch and run late in the Marshall game the put the victory on ice for K-State.

Running back Thomas Clayton has also provided a nice spark to the K-State rushing attack since his return to the lineup and has    averaged 82.5 yards per game on the ground in the last two contests.

But it’s on the defensive side of the ball where the Wildcats have really made hay. K-State’s D has not allowed an offensive touchdown since the fourth quarter of the season opener vs. Illinois State a span of eight quarters. In fact, opponents have generated just one red zone-opportunity in the last two games.

It is the most productive run on the defensive side of the ball since K-State went 13 straight quarters against Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State and Nebraska late in 2003 without yielding an offensive score.

And the numbers back up the Wildcats defensive prowess of late as K-State has yielded just 171.0 yards on average (2.9 yards per play), including 54.4 rushing yards per game (1.7 yards per rush) over the past two games.

A big part of Kansas State’s success has been the improvements shown by the Wildcats’ front seven this season. The Wildcats enter today’s game ranked seventh in the nation in tackles for losses with 28 for minus 108 yards - an average of 9.3 per game. After averaging just 6.4 tackles for losses and 1.9 sacks per game last season,  defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ charges collected 10 tackles in the backfield against Illinois State in the opener before totaling 12 vs. Florida Atlantic. Last week, the Wildcats tallied six TFLs vs. Marshall. Of those 28 TFLs, 10 have been sacks, which ranks 15th nationally.

Ian Campbell has been the primary disruptive force, collecting half of his 14 total tackles behind the line of scrimmage to rank fifth in the nation in tackles for losses, while steady Butkus Award candidate Brandon Archer continues to lead the team in total tackles with 24.

In the defensive backfield, the Wildcats have already snared four interceptions on the season, with Marcus Watts and Byron Garvin snagging their first picks of the year in last week’s win over Marshall.

The Wildcats also continue to flex their muscles on special teams. After recording touchdowns on a punt return and a kickoff return in the first two weeks of the season, K-State’s punt block unit got into the act last week as Antwon Moore blocked a Thundering Herd punt early in the first quarter to set up the Wildcats first touchdown of the game. Overall, Kansas State enters today’s game ranked in the top 11 in punt returns (11), kickoff returns (3) and kickoff return defense (9) and field goals made (3).

Kansas State and Louisville will be meeting for the first time on the gridiron, and the Wildcats will certainly have their hands full with one of the nation’s most complete teams in the eighth-ranked Cardinals, despite the U of L’s recent injury woes.

Fresh of a 31-7 thrashing of then-No. 17 Miami, Louisville leads the nation in both total offense (563.7 ypg) and scoring offense (50.7 ppg). But it’s not just the Cardinals’ offense that has been tough to handle. The Louisville defense is yielding just 11.7 ppg and ranks third in the nation vs. the run (34.0 ypg). As a result, the Cardinals have outscored its opponents by an average of nearly 40 points.

The Derby City Duo of Brohm and Bush won’t be available to play due to injuries; however their replacements have hardly missed a beat. Quarterback Hunter Cantwell, who started in the Gator Bowl vs. Virginia Tech last January, has completed 9-of-11 passes for 179 yards on the year, including hitting on 3-of-4 for 113 yards and a touchdown in the win over Miami.

Running backs George Stripling and Kolby Smith have been far from disappointing as well. Both have already rushed for 200 yards in three games, with Stripling averaging over seven yards per rush (28-201) with four TDs in three games and Smith gaining 5.6 yards per pop (36-200) with three scores.

Louisville also boasts an explosive receiving corps that will no doubt keep the Wildcat secondary on its toes. Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia have collected 13 and 11 catches each on the season, with Urrutia averaging a staggering 23.4 yards per reception.

The Cardinals’ defense has produced 24 tackles for losses, including 12 sacks, and is yielding 277.3 yards per game. The unit has been led by middle linebacker Nate Harris and strong safety Brandon Sharp. Harris leads the Cards in both total tackles (13) and tackles for losses (4.0-10). Louisville has also given up just one touchdown in the last two games.