No. 21 Kansas State in Big 12 title pursuit, draws No. 25 Kansas

The football rivalry between Kansas State and Kansas is pretty intense when neither team is any good.

When one of the teams is good, it raises the temperature a little.

But when both teams are good, like they are in 2023, the intensity is palpable. No. 21 Kansas State, still with a decent chance of playing in the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 2, will meet No. 25 Kansas — which also has a slight chance to reach the title game — on Saturday evening in Lawrence, Kan. “It’s light years different,” Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman said of Kansas’ improvement since Lance Liepold took over the Jayhawks. “It’s even light years different from Lance’s first year. They keep improving each year.” Kansas State has won 14 straight in the rivalry, but those 14 games don’t mean a thing this week. Kansas State (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) is in a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12. If the Wildcats win their last two games, including at Kansas and at home against Iowa State, there’s a strong possibility that they’ll face Texas in Arlington. But the Wildcats can’t look past the Jayhawks. “They’re really good at a number of different positions,” Klieman said. “They’re a really sound defense. They don’t give up explosive plays; they tackle really well. We’re gonna have to come up with a really good game plan to win, especially on the road. “They’re also really good and really creative on offense, no matter who’s behind center. They’re always going to be creative with shifts and motions and misdirection, as well as having the ability to give it to the two running backs and just pound it at you.” Quarterback Will Howard is playing well of late, even in an overtime loss at Texas two games ago. He threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Against Baylor last week, he threw three more touchdowns in a convincing win. He’s had at least three touchdowns in five games this season, tying a Kansas State record, and he’s now the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. While the QB position is an area of strength for the Wildcats, it’s a problem right now for Kansas (7-3, 4-3 Big 12). Starter Jalon Daniels has missed six straight games with injuries. Backup Jason Bean had to leave last Saturday’s game against Texas Tech with a head injury. Liepold was optimistic Monday that Bean could play Saturday. “I’m not going to get into the nature of injuries in-depth, but he did not practice last night,” he said. “But my latest (stance) is I’m very optimistic that he’ll be playing on Saturday.” The third stringer, walk-on freshman Cole Ballard, had to step in against Texas Tech. He performed well, almost leading his first career game-winning drive before making his first career start. But Tech kicked a game-winning field goal to win 16-13. Ballard, the son of Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard, has the football pedigree. But the questions will remain until he proves he can do it in live action. “I thought he’d do just about what he did — compete his tail off — and he won’t flinch,” Leipold said. “He will give you everything he has. I don’t think he ever had that deer-in-the-headlights look about him, where the moment was too big. “That locker room really likes Cole Ballard and they have for a long time. It’s his makeup, it’s in his DNA and he’s going to be a fine player here.” The biggest question is whether that will happen this Saturday.