football

Game Up Close: Driving on

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Although the record might not indicate it this season, it's tough to win on the road in the Big 12 Conference. Whether it's the simple change of venue or the noisy crowd heckling the opposing team, coaches from around the league will tell you, it's never easy.
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With that said, one of the easiest ways to better your chances of winning on the road is to take the crowd out of the game, and the quickest way to do that is to convert on third down when the fans are at their loudest.
Through nine games this season, Kansas State has been quite good when it comes to third-down conversions. The Wildcats have converted 52 of 100 third down opportunities, which ranks seventh nationally, after converting 82 of 195 (42 percent) attempts in 2011.
"It's a vital statistic in my eyes," K-State coach Bill Snyder said on Tuesday. "There are times when it doesn't happen the way you want it to happen and you may still have success.
"I don't think there is a number statistic that, collectively, makes a difference. All of the other things that we talk about, like turnovers, would probably take a higher ranking from my vantage point, but I think 50 percent is a substantial number in this day and age."
During Big 12 play this season, the Wildcats have moved the chains or scored on, or after, 34 of the team's 69 third down plays and 21-of-40 on the road. They converted 7-of-14 (50 percent) in a 24-19 win at then-No. 6 Oklahoma on Sept. 22, 8-of-17 (47 percent) in a 27-21 victory at Iowa State on Oct. 13 and 6-of-9 (67 percent) in a 55-14 rout at then-No. 13 West Virginia on Oct. 20.
No. 3 K-State, which boasts its highest-ever ranking at No. 2 in the BCS standings, will need to have similar success on third down when it travels to Fort Worth, Texas to take on new conference foe TCU on Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium at 6 p.m.
It's easier said than done, though.
So far, TCU's defense has been in complete lockdown mode during third down as the Horned Frogs rank fifth nationally in third down defense. They have allowed teams to move the chains just 31 percent (26 of 85) of the time in conference play and 27 percent (35 of 129) overall.
"I think they play extremely hard," Snyder said. "They are extremely well-coached. They get themselves in the right positions so it shows some discipline as well. They are a physical and athletic front and just fly around.
"They're just good at what they do."
On top of that, Gary Patterson's bunch ranks second in the country in forcing an average of 6.2 three-and-outs per game, trailing only Florida State, who forces 6.7 three-and-outs each contest.
"I think they are an aggressive defense," Snyder added. "They play hard. You see the constant improvement. They have youth and that's what happens with youth. They get better and better as they go along and I've certainly seen that.
"They run around good, they're physical up front with good range, run well in the back end and schematically, they're good as well."
For TCU, it all starts with stopping the run. The Horned Frogs give up just 96.6 rushing yards, which is atop of the Big 12 and eighth nationally. Their speedy defensive line of Stansly Maponga, Chucky Hunter, Davion Pierson and Devonte Fields stay active throughout the game and force teams to throw against their strong secondary, particularly on third down.
"I think that will definitely be a challenge for us," senior tight end Travis Tannahill said. "It's a challenge we're looking forward to."
If there is a team that is ready for the challenge, it's undefeated K-State, and if there is a coach that can maneuver around it, it's Snyder.
TCU might be good at what they do, but by no means have they played a team like they will come Saturday. Behind the legs of running backs John Hubert and Angelo Pease and senior quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats rank fifth in scoring offense at 44.3 points per game and rank 18th nationally in rushing offense by gaining nearly 225 yards per contest.
K-State's offense is methodical, but deadly and explosive, but efficient. Week after week, Snyder and the Wildcats prove their worth.
Sure, TCU's statistic of forcing three-and-outs might be alarming, but K-State's ability to avoid punting after three plays from scrimmage is just as scary. The Wildcats have just 14 possessions where that has happened. And that's not just in the conference, either. That's all season.
It's no secret K-State thrives on moving the chains and controlling the clock and they will look for that to continue this weekend.
"It's very important because you never want to go three-and-out to put your defense in a bad situation," Pease said. "We try to get at least five or six yards on first down to make third down easier."
That's the key to the game. If the Wildcats want to win another road game on Saturday, they will need to gain positive yards on first down to make it easier on Klein and the offense to convert on third down.
"Third downs have a lot to do with first downs, coach always says," Tannahill noted. "Getting a good first down play is very important for us."
It's tough to win on the road and K-State knows it. But in 2012, home field advantage has seemed almost non-existent in the Big 12, as road teams have captured victories in 16 of the first 29 conferences games. K-State, with three conference road wins, will look to add another notch to the belt on Saturday and TCU will try to escape with their first conference home win after falling to Iowa State and Texas Tech earlier this season.
This matchup will be decided on third downs throughout the game. If K-State can find a way to gain positive yards on first down, move the chains and silence the amped up crowd, they will put themselves in a great position to stay perfect and match their win total from a season ago.
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