The look on the faces of Kansas State's offensive players screamed of exhaustion, as they came off the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium last November. Gassed and battered, the Wildcats survived the gridiron battle with a 23-10 win over TCU, but displayed rare fatigue following one of their most physical contests of the season.
Although K-State's victory in its first Big 12 Conference meeting against the Horned Frogs propelled the Wildcats to their first-ever No. 1 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings, the undefeated squad departed Fort Worth mindful of the taxing effort it required to leave with the road win.
"We watched a lot of film on them. We realized they had a great defense," then-senior running back Angelo Pease noted after the Nov. 10, 2012 contest. "They came out ready to play, their defensive line. TCU's defense is a little bit different than everybody else. They do a lot of shifting and motion that took us a little time to adjust to it and be able for us to put some drives together.
"TCU is probably one of the most physical teams we have played all season. They are very good."
Throughout the contest, K-State struggled to move the ball. The Wildcats compiled a season-low 260 yards of total offense, including just 115 rushing yards on 34 carries. It was such a bruising game and since his squad battled to find ways to move the ball, Coach Bill Snyder admitted that, "it got to a point where we were conservative to get the game over with. The score dictated that."
Sitting at 4-6 overall and 2-5 in Big 12 play, TCU's record in 2013 doesn't show that its defense is on that same level as last year, but the statistics prove otherwise. That's why it will be important for K-State, 5-4 and 3-3, to pick its spots wisely on offense come Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"All of their stats are up in the defensive top echelon of the nation and the conference," Snyder said. "It just presents the obvious problems. They're awfully good against the run. We didn't knock them out of the box last year. They're extremely sound. What they do, they do well.
"They're a very physical football team up front and they run well. In the back end, there have been some injury problems back there, but I haven't seen any drop off in how they cover. Nobody's having great success throwing the ball against them and they've got the second-most interceptions in our conference. They're just good at what they do."
How good? TCU is on pace to become the first Big 12 team since Nebraska in 1996 to lead the conference in both sacks and interceptions. The Horned Frogs have a Big 12-leading 28 sacks and 17 picks. The 17 interceptions, along with 83 total tackles for loss, are tied for fourth nationally. This defense can be downright scary when it's healthy and playing to its full potential.
In addition, TCU ranks No. 21 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense by allowing 349.6 yards per game. The Horned Frogs are No. 19 nationally giving up just 125.2 rushing yards each contest and No. 10 in pass efficiency defense.
"They just have great athletes and Coach (Gary) Patterson always has a great defense," junior center B.J. Finney said. "It's just expected. Those guys have a lot of confidence and faith in their assignments and what they're doing. They do their homework and they're prepared.
"When you're prepared, you're confident and when you're confident, you play well. And this team always plays well. It's just one thing we have to be better at this week. We have to out-prepare them, we have to outwork them and once Saturday comes, we're going to have to outplay them."
Not to mention, the Horned Frogs are as physical a defense as the Wildcats will face all season.
"The game's the game," Snyder said. "No matter what you do, I don't think you can do anything that prevents you from having contact. I don't know that enters into it. In order for us to have success we have to be able to finish plays and just execute what it is you do as well as you possibly can and somebody has to win some battles. That doesn't come easy against a good football team."
However, K-State's offense, led by senior running back John Hubert, has made everything on offense look rather simple during its three-game winning streak and will look for it to continue.
"Obviously, it's very helpful," Snyder said of Hubert's recent production. "He's had an impact, but we talk about our offensive line, which has made a good deal of improvement. That's been very beneficial. Our quarterbacks (Jake Waters and Daniel Sams) have gotten better as we've progressed.
"It's a collective effort and John is a big part of it, but it really has been a collective effort. I wouldn't take their performance level and continued improvement for granted. It's a game-by-game thing and a day-by-day thing and I don't know that they're a defensive football team out there that we've played that's as fine-tuned as TCU."
For K-State, being predictable on offense is not an option against this team. The play calling doesn't necessarily have to be full of gadgets or tricks, but keeping this relentless TCU defense guessing will be key. If that happens, K-State will be in a prime position to become bowl eligible. If not, the Horned Frogs will be quick to stop the Wildcats in their tracks and make Snyder's team earn everything once again.