The Kansas State Wildcats entered Saturday's game in unfamiliar territory. Not since 1989 had Kansas State dropped three of its first four games. An upset by the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles would have put K-State at 1-3 for the first time since Coach Bill Snyder's inaugural season. The Wildcats vanquished such possibilities with a 49-7 trouncing of the Golden Eagles, but Snyder said feeling good about a victory was secondary to feeling strongly about improving as a football team.
"We're above where we started," Snyder said, "so I'm not unhappy about that. We have made progress."
One area of particular improvement was the kickoff return game, where wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Banks made history.
Banks took a kickoff 91 yards for a score late in the first quarter. On the opening play of the second half, he topped that feat, finding a seam and sprinting 92 yards for a score. With his second trip to the end zone, Banks became the first player in Wildcat -- and Big 12 -- history to take a pair of kickoffs back for touchdowns. His feat also tied the NCAA record.
Banks, who after the game was unaware that he'd set any sort of record, was quick to credit his teammates for his success in the return game.
"I just ran the ball," Banks said. "The other 10 guys on the team blocked really well. I just found a crease and ran."
Snyder agreed that the blocking by the kickoff return team was exceptional.
"The first (return) was picture perfect," Snyder said. "I could have -- almost, not quite -- could have gotten up the field a little bit."
Banks entered Saturday with 375 all-purpose yards on the season. With his pair of return touchdowns and a 64-yard reception, the diminutive senior was seemingly trying to eclipse that combined total on Saturday. Banks finished the match-up against the Golden Eagles with 303 all-purpose yards, a single-game total that ranks fifth in school history.
When Banks wasn't sprinting down sidelines, the name of the Wildcat game was ball control. K-State rushed 60 times while passing just 11. All told, K-State controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes, despite the fact that they had two special teams scores.
"I think (ball control) always is a focus," quarterback Carson Coffman said. "That's one of the big things we're trying to do, and we were able to today."
K-State's focus on dominating on the ground was evident from the start, with the Wildcats consuming more than seven minutes on their opening drive. The Wildcats rushed for 53 yards on the scoring possession, with Daniel Thomas providing an exclamation point by leaping into the end zone with 5:35 left in the first quarter.
"(Thomas) just carries this team," Coffman said of the running back. "As much as we can get him the ball, we're going to be good."
Thomas led the way for the Wildcats, gaining 139 rushing yards and carrying for a pair of touchdowns. He was one of five different Wildcats to reach the end zone. Backup Keithen Valentine gained 73 yards and scored a touchdown, while quarterbacks Coffman and Grant Gregory also ran their way to pay dirt.
A look at offensive numbers might lead one to think the Wildcats operated with few hiccups. K-State rushed for 296, passed for 152, and out-gained the Golden Eagles 448-107. Alas, such numbers concealed the fact that the Wildcats were penalized 10 times for 96 yards. Snyder cited the lack of discipline in the area of avoiding penalties as a "major issue."
"We shot ourselves in the foot on offense," Snyder said, "and did exactly the same on defense."
The Wildcats were penalized twice on the Golden Eagles' first scoring drive, including a critical third-down defensive holding penalty that kept Tennessee Tech out of a punting situation.
"There were some problems that were probably pretty obvious," Snyder said.
The K-State kicking game, an area of inconsistency through the first two games of the season, met struggles again against the Golden Eagles. Kicker Josh Cherry, who entered Saturday's game having converted 20-percent of his field goal attempts in 2009, missed from 36 yards out in the second quarter. Cherry converted all five extra points he attempted, while backup kicker Brandon Klimek was two-for-two.
Defensively, the Wildcats sniffed out Golden Eagle rushes as if there were a purple jersey in the Tennessee Tech huddle. Tennessee Tech rushed 25 times and finished the day with negative-19 yards on the ground. Despite the success in limiting the Golden Eagle offense, Wildcat defenders echoed Snyder's mantra that improvement is key.
"We played pretty well today," defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald said of the Wildcat defense. "We still can do a lot better. The first half was a little shaky, but the second half was a lot better. We just have to build on that."
Kansas State allowed 89 total yards in the first half, but just 18 in the second.
"I want our guys to understand that we had some deficiencies in the first half, and that the second half was really played much, much better. I want them to understand that we made some improvement from half one to half two," Snyder said.
With non-conference games complete, the Wildcats will open Big 12 competition on Saturday with a neutral-site battle against the Iowa State Cyclones. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.