The 2017 version of the Cactus Bowl is rematch of the 2015 Alamo Bowl, but not so much. UCLA (6-6) will meet Kansas State (7-5) the day after Christmas in Phoenix. The last time they met was the day after New Year’s, 2015, concluding the 2014 season. That turned into a very chippy win for the Bruins, with then-head coach Jim Mora refusing to shake hands with K-State’s venerable Bill Snyder after the game. Mora felt a couple of Wildcats players had taken some shots at quarterback Brett Hundley in the victory formation. Snyder is one of the few key elements coming back for UCLA vs. Kansas State 2.0.
Cactus Bowl Preview
What: Cactus Bowl
Who: UCLA Bruins vs. Kansas State Wildcats
Where: Chase Field, Phoenix, AZ
When: 7pm PST, Tuesday, December 26th
Know Your Wildcats
Kansas State was 3-4 by the third week of October. But the Wildcats come into the Cactus Bowl having won four of their last games, and they did it without quarterback Jesse Ertz who was injured nearly halfway through the season. With Ertz out, Snyder turned the team into a run-first offense. The Wildcats average 187 yards rushing per game behind Alex Barnes and Dalvin Warmack. That is good for second in the Big XII.
Alex Delton was the next in line at quarterback behind Ertz. But, it has been Skylar Thompson down the stretch. Thompson is averaging only 130 yards passing per game. What he is has in his favor is that he typical of Bill Snyder coached teams/players. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He has two interceptions in six appearances this season. His peak was in the 45-40 win at Oklahoma State, when he went 10-of-13 for 204 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran the ball 17 times for 93 yards and another touchdown in Stillwater. Expect the Wildcats to run primarily….heck, even secondarily. UCLA brings the second worst rush defense in the country into the game, yielding 283 yards per game on the ground.
Kansas State has made a post season bowl every season since Bill Snyder returned for his second stint in Manhattan, Kansas in 2009, but they are 2-5 over that stretch. They beat Texas A&M last year in Texas Bowl. Their other win in that stretch was a 17-point win over Michigan in the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Know Your Bruins
UCLA needed a win over Cal in the season finale to get to 6-6 and become bowl eligible. The week before the game, Jim Mora was fired as head coach. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch coached the Bruins in the Cal win and he will do so in the Cactus Bowl as well. With Chip Kelly coming in for the 2018 season, many assistant coaching moves have been made already prior to this game. None of the new staff will be coaching but some from Mora’s staff who were not going to be retained have left early.
Editor’s Note: As of the publishing of this article there are multiple media reports that Josh Rosen has been declared out for the game. All but one of those reports, save for one, stem from one specific media outlet. Last Word on College Football cannot independently confirm the information. We do know that Rosen was slated to take reps with the first team in non-contact drills Saturday and then be re-evaluated subsequent to that.
The bigger question for the Bruins is if the school’s all time leading passer, Josh Rosen, will be playing. He suffered a concussion for the second time this season, in the first half of the Cal game. Rosen did travel with the team, and as of the writing of this preview, he is scheduled to take first team snaps in non-contact drills. He has yet to receive medical clearance to play as of this writing.
The team is completely different dependent upon his status. He has 3,756 yards with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He would be playing against a K-State defense that has given up 370+ yards passing six times this season. If he does not go, it will be Devon Modster. The redshirt freshman has filled in sporadically for Rosen this season. If he is the quarterback, expect the game plan to look more like a rehearsal for him for Chip Kelly for next season. Modster has more edge capabilities with a decent arm. He is 30-of-45 for 376 yards and two touchdowns this season.
While it is trite to say turnovers will be the key, Kansas State is +10 in turnover margin this season, while the Bruins are -9. If it is Rosen going for the Bruins, turnovers, or not, this is UCLA’s game to lose. If it is Modster, then it is anyone’s guess, and it would truly be a guess.