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October 3, 2013

Game Up Close: Snyder's formula

It doesn't take too long for an opposing Big 12 Conference coaching staff to recognize and regurgitate the strengths of a Bill Snyder-coached Kansas State team during game week. After four games, there's perhaps little secret when it comes to the Wildcats' offensive plan. Some things change, but the philosophy has remained intact for the 73-year-old head coach since his return to the sideline in 2009.

During Snyder's second stint, K-State has established a consistent identity and respectable reputation that, although predictable at times, has been hard to stop. So when Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was asked to compare this K-State team filled with fresh faces to the previous squads, it was no surprise the answer had a familiar ring to it.

"The same. They're style is similar," Gundy said during the Big 12 coaches teleconference earlier this week. "They have the transfer quarterback that's running their offense. They want to spread you out and get the extra guy in the quarterback running game and use the back as an extra blocker and try to get an extra number.

The Wildcats failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity in the ground game against a struggling Texas defense two weeks ago and things probably won't look too much better come Saturday. The Cowboys have perhaps the best rush defense in the conference and have bottled up every opponent they've played thus far, including West Virginia last weekend. K-State has the offensive line and personnel to swing the advantage a different direction, but there hasn't been enough proof to guarantee it will happen. Only picking up 115 yards on 38 attempts against Texas wasn't a promising sign, either.
The Cowboys have a different look to their rushing attack than they've had in previous years. Instead of having a primary back to rely on, Oklahoma State uses quarterback J.W. Walsh, who has good speed, and a combination of Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland to balance their fast-paced spread offense. The duo of running backs was far from stellar against West Virginia, especially Smith, who picked up just one yard on 15 carries, and has been off and on all season. The good news for the Cowboys is the Wildcats head into the contest giving up 185.5 yards per game on the ground.
Slight Advantage: OKLAHOMA STATE
Throwing the ball effectively hasn't been a problem all year for the Wildcats and this week should be no different. The Cowboys have a shaky secondary, which could mean a field day for junior quarterback Jake Waters and his host of receivers. It's the area K-State can really exploit Oklahoma State offensively. Waters has been rather efficient all season and proved a road environment isn't a huge issue by completing 19 of 30 passes for 275 yards against Texas and played the entire second half. It will be important for Waters to do the same against Oklahoma State while limiting his turnovers, which have been problematic at times this season.
Big Advantage: K-STATE
Sophomore quarterback J.W. Walsh doesn't have the greatest of arm strength and showed signs of being turnover prone at West Virginia by throwing two interceptions, but he still threw for 322 yards in the loss. It certainly wasn't his best outing since taking over the starting role and he will look to bounce back against a K-State secondary that has been inconsistent all season and frequently gives opposing wide receivers a good cushion. The tempo of Oklahoma State's spread offense could be troublesome for K-State, too, and that might be enough to rattle the Wildcat defense and move the ball downfield early and often.
Given what the Cowboys did on special teams last weekend against West Virginia in missing two field goals and shanking two punts, this is a no brainer. And although K-State hasn't been as good as usual on special teams, the Wildcats still have been pretty consistent in kicking situations with Jack Cantele and punting situations with Mark Krause. Return specialists Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson are always dangerous too and it could give K-State a needed boost throughout the game.
Big Advantage: K-STATE
Heading into the season, this matchup didn't look good for the Wildcats and it still remains that way even with the Cowboys losing their conference opener last week. Oklahoma State is just the better football team right now. However, K-State is really good following a bye week and anything can happen, but a lot of corrections must be made for it to have a legitimate chance at pulling off the upset on the road.

"They want to be good. They have good returners in the kicking game. They want to be sound. They want to use the clock and minimize the total number of plays."

Herein lies the problem: The same formula that proved successful in back-to-back double-digit win campaigns just hasn't been as effective so far this season. Sure, the Wildcats have shown glimpses of potential, but the offense that's been known for its discipline, ball control and time management, has been plagued by penalties, turnovers and stalled drives. Meanwhile, the bend-don't-break defense has snapped numerous times, hasn't created turnovers, and hasn't displayed the trademark hard-nosed mentality of the previous two campaigns.

In fact, even the special teams units haven't yet routinely shown the dangerous edge that's been known to mightily assist the Wildcats through the years.

Such inconsistencies across the board have hampered K-State as it attempts to find its groove in 2013.

Now, K-State, 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big 12, travels to face No. 21 Oklahoma State, 3-1 and 0-1, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Stillwater, without a true identity.

The good news? The Wildcats had the luxury of a bye week to get their house in order before a daunting start to October, which starts against the Big 12 preseason favorite Cowboys and continues next weekend against No. 17 Baylor.

"I think (the bye week) really helped us with an identity," junior wide receiver and co-captain Tyler Lockett said. "I think it helped us because we were able to start focusing on getting off the ball faster, we were able to start working on managing the play clock and also not waiting until the last minute for the play clock to go down. We just tried to work on some of the little things that have been hurting us."

The little things that K-State has routinely been accustomed to utilizing against its opponents have seemingly worked against the Wildcats this season. The Wildcats rank in the bottom half of the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense, rushing defense and time of possession, and rank 113th out of 123 FBS teams in turnover margin.

Maybe teams are starting to exploit K-State's tactics due to its inexperience. Perhaps a bye week is exactly what the Wildcats needed.

"Every week we're trying to make our identity be known and grow each week," sophomore linebacker Mike Moore said. "I think this week, and for us having a week off, it just gave us more time to prepare."

Discovering an identity to mesh together the rest of the season is undoubtedly still a work in progress. Snyder, who's famously been through rebuilding campaigns before, understands the method toward finding a remedy.

"I think that's something that has to come from within," Snyder said. "It's easy to say, do this, do that, et cetera, but the bottom line and at the end of the day, it's how they feel and how they believe and what is truly significant to them and how they respond to it.

"If there's dialogue about, 'Who are we and what's our rallying point?' I think that's something that they have to do. How significant that is, I don't know. That's something they define collectively I think or individually and it grows collectively when guys kind of reach out and say, 'Hey, that makes sense. Let's do this. Let's accomplish this. Let's be this.'"

Lockett agrees.

"It really just depends on what we want it to be," he said. "If it is what we want it to be, but it's not so in the game that we play then we also have something to lean back on as well whether it's passing or running."

The week off seemed to be beneficial, too. Players believe they cleared up lingering issues on the field and grew closer during the time away from official competition.

"I feel like we came together more," sophomore defensive end Travis Britz said. "We might have lost sight of what the goal was but I think this week we really got back on track and we're working hard."

"I would say passion really," sophomore safety Dante Barnett said of the biggest difference this week. "When you start losing football games you develop that passion and the passion comes out of a lot of players who really don't like to lose."

Fortunately for K-State, plenty of season remains for it to implement an identity to salvage success even despite an uphill climb to start October.

The bad news? This matchup against Oklahoma State on paper seems wholly unfavorable. But nonetheless, it's a best place to start.

"We haven't been doing the things we really, really feel like we're supposed to," sophomore defensive end Marquel Bryant said. "We feel like from here on out it's on. We have to bring more to the plate and it's a big deal for us. We're still holding the Big 12 title. We just have to ball out these next few games."

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