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Backups in focus for No. 18 NC State, No. 25 Kansas State in Pop-Tarts Bowl

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The official name is the Pop-Tarts Bowl, but the tasty matchup set to be played Thursday in Orlando, Fla., might as well be called the Transfer Bowl.

The game will feature No. 18 North Carolina State and No. 25 Kansas State, which had a combined 33 players enter the transfer portal, in their first-ever matchup on the football field. All-American linebacker Payton Wilson also announced Sunday he won’t play in the game, choosing to focus on the NFL draft preparations instead.

This game, formed in 1990 as the Blockbuster Bowl, has gone by a variety of names, including the Carquest Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl and Camping World Bowl. The moniker doesn’t matter to NC State head coach Dave Doeren, who said he has nothing but respect for Kansas State.

“We are thrilled to be headed to Orlando to play in the Pop-Tarts Bowl,” Doeren said. “This will be a great reward for our team and we’re looking forward to a great trip and a great game. I think this was the right location for us to go.

“I grew up in Kansas City before Coach (Bill) Snyder was (at Kansas State), and it wasn’t much of a program. I have so much respect for what Coach Snyder did, twice, and now what Coach (Chris) Klieman has done.”

What Klieman did this year was lead the Wildcats to an 8-4 mark. In Klieman’s fifth season at the helm of the program, this is the fourth bowl berth for Kansas State.

Doeren’s Wolfpack (9-3) have some uncertainty at quarterback. Brennan Armstrong started the season as the starter but was replaced by MJ Morris after five games. Morris went 3-1 in four games before deciding to redshirt and eventually enter the transfer portal.

Armstrong finished the season completing 62.4 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. Doeren was pleased with Armstrong’s approach after being benched.

“My respect for him has always been high,” Doeren said, adding Armstrong handled the situation “as well as you can hope.”

There’s no uncertainty at quarterback for Kansas State, partly because of a lack of depth and partly because of excitement about the future.

Avery Johnson, the Wildcats’ freshman quarterback, will make his first career start after seven solid relief appearances in 2023. He backed up quarterback Will Howard, who entered the transfer portal with one year remaining, maybe because he envisioned his starting job being turned over to Johnson even if he stuck around.

Johnson finished the season 23-of-35 passing for 301 yards and three touchdowns, and he added 225 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries. Five of those rushing touchdowns came in one game against Texas Tech, tying the school record for touchdown runs in a game.

“We all know he’s a really special talent,” Klieman told WIBW-TV. “I’m excited because I think we’re going to showcase a lot of his abilities.

“It’s a look into the future. He had some pretty good snaps this fall, so it’s not like he’s going to be nervous or anything. He’s a very confident guy. The players are confident in him and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun to see when he can do.”

Johnson is the only experienced quarterback on the roster as backups Jake Rubley and Adryan Lara joined Howard in the portal.

Should Kansas State need a backup in the game, they’ll likely turn to freshman Jacob Knuth, who has appealed for a waiver to play after transferring from Minnesota. If Knuth is not granted the waiver, backup safety Max Marsh would be the emergency quarterback.

The quarterback room is not the only place fans will see changes for Kansas State. Defensive captain Kobe Savage, a safety, and defensive end Nate Matlack lead the list of departures on that side of the ball.

–Field Level Media

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