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January 5, 2012

What to Watch: Airborne pigs

IRVING, Texas -- As the 2012 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic nears, much of the game's offensive focus has been centered on Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. And for good reason. But a glance across the field will provide another storyline about another quarterback.
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 8 Kansas State
K-State's defense is based on taking away the opposition's running game and turning it one dimensional, something the Wildcats have succeeded at this season. Arkansas' offense is rooted in throwing the ball, but the Razorbacks can also run the ball. Still, at 138 yards a game, Arkansas' ground game, led this season by junior Dennis Johnson at 63.7 yards a game, is more of a complement to the passing attack. It's interesting to note that Arkansas' 25 rushing touchdowns this season are one less than the 26 scored by K-State quarterback Collin Klein.
Klein served as one of the Big 12's most-effective running backs all season. Except he's K-State's quarterback. Klein has accounted for slightly less than half of K-State's 2,324 rushing yards. It's his mix of size and speed that makes him so dangerous, but his ability to read defenses out of K-State's zone option is uncanny. Now, couple that with the fact that Arkansas has struggled against quarterback running games and it's obvious where much of K-State's offense could be rooted. And don't forget sophomore running back John Hubert, whose size and shiftiness often cash in worn out defenses in the second half.
Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson completes 63 percent of his passes and hasn't thrown many interceptions this season. Arkansas throws the ball about 57 percent of the time, and like Texas Tech it doesn't take a lot of chances in the passing game. Senior receivers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams are a one-two punch for the Razorbacks (Wright has 11 TDs), but look for tight end Chris Gragg and Johnson out of the backfield to give K-State problems. This is where Arkansas believes it can gut the K-State defense thanks to defensive statistics from the pass-hungry Big 12 that are less than flattering.
Despite his reputation as a running quarterback, Klein has been surprisingly effective as a thrower this season, completing 58 percent of his passes. He doesn't possess a big arm, but the junior has consistently made big throws all season. Junior Chris Harper (39 receptions, 5 TDs) is Klein's go-to receiver, but he also likes to turn to one of his tight ends in a time of need. Klein's passing story is about timely, big-play completions.
This is an odd situation for Bill Snyder's team. It's usually his team that holds an advantage in special teams, but a season-ending injury to Tyler Lockett has left uncertainty in the return game. Arkansas counters with Adams as a highlight reel punt returner and a good kick return pairing of Johnson and Marquel Wade. K-State hopes the directional punting of Ryan Doerr proves solid as usual and place-kicker Anthony Cantele has shown to be a sure-footed field goal threat as the season progressed. Still, Arkansas poses a serious threat thanks to Adams.
Arkansas by 3

Arkansas' Tyler Wilson is not nearly as physically imposing as Klein and his game is radically different, but his ability to operate the Razorbacks' attack makes him equally dangerous. Generously listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Wilson is known for his skills as a thrower. The junior from Greenwood, Ark., completed 63 percent of his passes this season, throwing for 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions on the year. He averaged 285 yards of passing a game, far under the inflated Big 12 standards of some quarterbacks, but still rather prolific numbers.

"Tough. Very tough," was the reaction of K-State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh when asked about Wilson. "Physical, accurate, a 63-percent completion percentage, protects the football. I noticed the 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. That's very impressive."

The Arkansas offense reflects elements of many Big 12 schemes, including Texas Tech, Missouri and Texas A&M, but it’s this quarterback's ability to hit receivers in stride and let them maximize their athletic ability that makes the scheme so dangerous.

"It's nice to play quarterback in an offense like this when you have multiple guys around you like Jarius (Wright) and Joe (Adams), and really all of the guys … who can really make plays for you and make your job easy," Wilson said.

Expect Wilson to spray the ball around the field to a number of receivers, including imposing tight end Chris Gragg. It's a rhythm offense that puts a defense on its heels, and just when things are starting to unravel for a defense, Wilson takes a shot down field.

"You have guys who can go up and make plays for you," Wilson said. "You have to understand the situation of the game and that you can and can't take chances like that. Obviously, when you have those type of weapons, you tend to let your guys make plays for you."

Combine that point guard mentality with a strong understanding of the game, and it's easy to see why Wilson was named the SEC's first-team all-conference quarterback.

"Tyler has kind of expanded that imaginative part of it because he even does stuff that isn’t drawn up in the playbook," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "He is a young man that has tremendous vision. He has very, very good instincts. He creates some plays on his own. I have tremendous respect for how hard he played this year, really how hard he has worked in his preparation."

The good news for K-State is surviving a season in the Big 12 means the Wildcats have seen many passing offenses, and better ones, on their schedule. The bad news is at times those offenses have had their way with the Wildcats.

"We all know the Big 12 is heavy on passing so that's an advantage for us," K-State senior linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. "Arkansas spreads the ball out, runs a lot of drag underneath routes. It's all about communication out there and awareness.

"They do a great job with their receivers, they have great speed and you have to give them credit for that. This is going to be a great game and I'm looking forward to it."

However, for everything that is different about the Cotton Bowl's two quarterbacks, there is one striking similarity. Both are crucial leaders for their team.

"Even this week when we are down here and there are a lot of events going on and a lot of people using your time up that you are not normally used to, Tyler has been in the meeting room about every time I go down to the offensive meeting room," Petrino said. "He is in the quarterback meeting room watching extra video, studying practice, studying third downs. So it is something that I really respect him for his hard work and his dedication. It took him three years to get the (starting) job and he has really made the most of it. He has been a really good player for us."

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