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September 19, 2013

Game Up Close: Crunch time

The message has been preached so much to Kansas State's defense it's almost become redundant. Yet, the inexperienced Wildcats, who understand their flaws of inconsistency, still seem to struggle with it in crucial moments. Sure, there are many reasons that have factored into K-State's shocking inability to get off the field in a timely fashion and improvement is apparent, but it doesn't change the fact its third-down defense was far from desirable during the non-conference slate.
It was crystal clear the Wildcats wanted to establish the run last week and force lowly UMass to stop it. It worked, as they amassed 329 yards on 46 carries in comfortable win, and the game plan should be very similar against the Longhorns. Texas currently ranks 121 of 123 FBS teams this season in rushing defense, allowing a staggering 308.7 yards per game. John Hubert could have another big game for the Wildcats, but look for backup quarterback Daniel Sams to emerge and potentially have the best game of his young career if he can escape Texas' solid defensive line, get into the second tier, and exploit the weak linebacker play when his number is called.
Big Advantage: K-State
The talent is certainly there for this unit to be one of the best in the conference and facing this K-State defense could prove why if the offensive line is indeed healthy. Led by sophomore Jonathan Gray, the Longhorns average 205 rushing yards per contest and will look to attack the Wildcats, who have struggled at times to contain the run, from the start. Gray is not the only threat, though. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are both very good running backs and quarterbacks David Ash and Case McCoy can run as well. K-State's defense has improved since the start of the season, but dealing with the speed and power of Texas will be a handful.
Advantage: Texas
The Wildcats somewhat abandoned the passing game against UMass to get the rushing attack going for the first time this season, but they were rather efficient when they elected to throw. Jake Waters completed 5-of-10 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns, while Daniel Sams connected on both of his attempts for 12 yards. The only downfall was Waters threw another interception. K-State probably won't throw the ball too much unless Texas somehow figures out how to stop the run, but it could also mean the play-action pass will be there. It will be important for either Waters or Sams to make good decisions, stay calm in the pocket and take advantage of the opportunity when it exists.
Advantage: K-State
Texas junior quarterback David Ash returned to the practice field Thursday after suffering a concussion in Week 2 against BYU, which means K-State has likely had the tricky task of preparing for two quarterbacks. Ash is clearly the better of the two signal callers, but Case McCoy did a fairly good job against Ole Miss, especially in the first half. The passing attack has lacked consistency, though, and the Longhorns' playmakers might not be at full strength. Still, K-State's defense has been shaky as well and cornerbacks Kip Daily and Dorrian Roberts will be playing in their first career road game. The bend but don't break defense for the Wildcats will be fully tested.
Advantage: Texas
A punt return touchdown by Ole Miss late in the third quarter was the straw that broke Texas' back last week and the Longhorns will look to avoid that at all cost against the Wildcats. However, that is easier said than done with speedsters Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson fielding kicks and punts. Even with Texas' do-it-all specialist Anthony Fera, K-State's return game is enough to give them the slight advantage nod in this one, but it will be vital for place kicker Jack Cantele and punter Mark Krause to be on point in their first road game.
Slight Advantage: K-State
Both teams have had a befuddling start to the season with somewhat rare non-conference losses, but the momentum favors K-State heading into the contest. The Wildcats are coming off back-to-back wins, while the Longhorns have gone the completely opposite direction. Not to mention, K-State has won the previous five meetings against Texas. With that said, the Wildcats have an inexperienced team playing in their first road game against an angry group of talented players and it's hard to simulate what playing in front of 100,000 just as angry fans exactly feels like in practice. Momentum still wins at this point.
Slight Advantage: K-State

Fortunately for K-State, 2-1, the magnifying glass will be on struggling Texas, 1-2, when the two squads clash to open Big 12 Conference play Saturday night, but, for as much as people want to talk about it, the key to the game has nothing to do with Longhorns' ineptitude at stopping the run. The pressure for success in the nationally televised 7 p.m. contest at DKR Texas Memorial Stadium lies solely on the shoulders of the Wildcat defense and finding ways to stop Texas on third-down situations.

"The emphasis is monumental in regards to the focus on third down, but the teams you line up and play against have a little bit to do with that as well," K-State coach Bill Snyder said this week. "We have to get better at it, no doubt about that and we have to work on it get better at it."

Third-down defense has become the Achilles' heel for this K-State team that had to replace nine of 11 starters at the beginning of the season. It was the backbreaker in the season opening loss to North Dakota State when the Wildcats allowed the Bison to convert 10 of 17 third-down situations, including four straight on the final deciding drive, and didn't look too much better against Louisiana and Massachusetts despite the statistical improvement. K-State gave up 7 of 16 conversions to ULL and 7 of 17 to UMass.

K-State has enabled opponents to convert third-down situations at an alarming 48 percent clip, which ranks 105 out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams this season. And although the three offenses weren't terrible, none of them are exactly juggernauts, making it a prime concern heading into conference play.

"Third downs are a priority for us," junior linebacker Jonathan Truman said. "Getting to third down and then having them convert, you know, that's hard on us. We just need to finish strong in the series and finish on third downs and get off the field."

Asked Truman what the problem has been in such situations, the 5-foot-11, 219-pounder was slightly hesitant.

"I can't really say. I know it's been a combination of things," he said. "Obviously we've faced some good offenses that have had the right play call at the right time and maybe we had some errors on our side just technique wise and just being out of place at the wrong time allowing teams to get first downs."

Some of these issues are nothing more than growing pains. After all, this defense only has three games together. But another issue has been personnel. K-State has constantly shuffled players into the third-down package during the non-conference to find the right fit and might have found the best combination against UMass with junior Ryan Mueller and senior Alauna Finau at the tackles and freshman Jordan Willis and sophomore Mike Moore at the defensive end spots.

"We know with a pass rush that speed is the key (on third down). Speed is the key," Moore said. "Speed and for the two interior guys to be strong and fast, that's what we need to do get back there to the quarterback."

Although K-State found some success using those four players, and sometimes sophomore defensive tackle Travis Britz, the uphill climb toward improvement could become steeper against Texas. Not only do the Longhorns possess the top athletes that the Wildcats have faced at any time so far this season, but they also move the ball at a much faster rate.

That could mean trouble for a defense that surrendered more than 350 yards per game against its three non-conference foes.

"I think they're going to be a much more up-tempo offense than we've seen," senior free safety Ty Zimmerman said. "They're going to get up to the line and snap the ball a lot quicker so we're going to have to line up, read our keys and play assignment sound. They're going to be a lot faster."

Snyder watched the Texas spring game and noted earlier in the week the frequency with which the signal-callers were taking each snap -- a span of between nine and 11 seconds. That's an alarming rate.

"That's extremely fast. The fast teams don't go that fast," the 73-year-old coach said. "They really had put a great deal of emphasis in it and that, accompanied with the speed of the players that they have, if you cant get yourself lined up then speed will beat you do death.

"We just got to do a good job of being able to get aligned and then they step out and they'll shift guys around and we'll have to be able to make those quick adjustments to make sure that we don't get outnumbered some place. All of that, just what takes place before the snap of the ball becomes very vital for us."

Throw the troubled woes of the past in with the speed of Texas, regardless who is at quarterback, and add the fact the majority of this K-State defense will be playing in their first road game and in front of 100,000-plus fans, it appears to be a daunting task for this defense to shape up in a hurry. Challenge accepted.

"I think we're right where we need to be," Mueller said. "I think everybody's gotten a lot more confident in their game. Having more confidence on the defensive side of the ball allows players to move faster and have confidence in their ability of what they're doing.

"I think the University of Texas, it's going to be a great opportunity for us to really show how much we can improve and how we stack up against a premier team in the Big 12."

Contrary to popular belief, this game isn't just about K-State's offense trying to run the ball against Texas. This contest starts and ends with the Wildcats doing whatever they can to stop the Longhorns and get off the field on a regular basis.

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