A week after running through the Texas A&M Aggies with a 48-point victory, the question surrounding the Kansas State Wildcats was, "How will they handle success?" The Big 12 North leading Wildcats followed through with another victory, corralling the Colorado Buffaloes 20-6; but also with an offensive performance that left Coach Bill Snyder wanting more.
"The name of this game for us is trying to get better," Snyder said. "We got better on defense and I am proud of that. We did not get better on offense."
While the Wildcats (5-3, 3-1) posted a total of 204 rushing yards and controlled the ball for more than 34 minutes, they also passed for just 80 and completed just 50 percent of their pass attempts. The second half was particularly unkind to the K-State offense, as they scored no points, committed eight penalties and were forced to punt four times. They also lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
"If you finish well," Snyder said, "it means you played well and prepared well. If you do not, that means you did not prepare or play well. Half of our game we did not prepare or play well."
Wildcat players confirmed that the message Snyder relayed in his postgame press conference was the same one they received.
"(Snyder) basically told us that the defense played well," wide receiver Attrail Snipes said, "and the offense was embarrassing."
"He said to enjoy the win," quarterback Grant Gregory said, "but that we've got to come back ready to play."
Although the game did not feature the offensive fireworks of the Wildcats' shellacking of the Aggies, it did showcase a K-State defense that the head coach deemed, "lights out."
"I felt our defense played extremely well," Snyder said. "I thought our coaches did a great job. I think our offense put them in some ridiculous situations. We had three or four guys out there on the defensive side that did not practice all week with all the flu stuff going around. I am awfully proud of them."
The Wildcat defense limited the Buffaloes (2-5, 1-2) to just 244 total offensive yards. They forced four Colorado turnovers, tallied four quarterback sacks, and limited the Buffaloes to just 1.9 yards per rush attempt; all numbers that seemed unimaginable just two weeks earlier.
"We all came together after (losing to Texas Tech 66-14) and said, 'Look, we're better than this,'" safety Tysyn Hartman said. "'The way we're practicing and the way we're playing right now isn't cutting it.' We came together and we started working harder."
On their way to shutting down a Colorado offense that posted 34 points against Kansas a week earlier, the Wildcats continued to prove that they can provide a formidable pass rush. After tallying just six total sacks in the first six games of the season, K-State has piled up 10 combined sacks in the last two.
"Out (defensive) line has been able to get some push, some pressure on the quarterback these past couple weeks," Hartman said. "They've been able to string two really good games back-to-back. That really helps us (defensive backs) out."
Despite the fact that Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen's quick feet left a few Wildcat defenders grasping at air, defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald and the rest of the Wildcat defense kept the sophomore QB running for his safety. Although he was one Wildcat that struggled with the flu all week, Fitzgerald led the Wildcats with 1.5 sacks, and totaled three tackles on the day.
"(Fitzgerald) was kind of sick this week," Hartman said. "He came back and was able to play a terrific ballgame. You couldn't ask more of the guy."
The Wildcats' opening drive resulted in a Josh Cherry field goal, but the Buffaloes answered right back with a 70-yard touchdown drive. Colorado running back Rodney Stewart dove into the end zone from two yards out to give the Buffaloes a 6-3 lead with 5:39 left in the first quarter.
K-State reclaimed the lead early in the second quarter with a four-yard touchdown carry by Daniel Thomas. Thomas' touchdown capped a 58-yard drive in which the Wildcats did not attempt a single pass.
Despite a second-quarter trip to locker room to tend to an undisclosed injury, Thomas continued to serve as K-State's workhorse on offense. He carried 20 times for 145 yards and punched in one touchdown. Adding to Thomas' ground attack, Keithen Valentine rushed for 21 yards, while Gregory added 27 more via options and scrambles.
The Wildcats pushed their lead to 14 with just 1:11 remaining in the first half. Capitalizing on the recovery of a muffed punt by Colorado returner Jason Espinoza, K-State pushed the ball 20 yards and ate more than two minutes off the game clock before Gregory scored a five-yard touchdown.
Looking to provide a spark for a struggling offense and make a quick score before halftime, Colorado inserted former starting quarterback Cody Hawkins with 81 yards to travel and just over one minute to do it. Hawkins completed two passes before tossing three straight incompletions and then an interception. The interception by safety Emmanuel Lamur was the first of his K-State career.
"Emmanuel gets better on a pretty consistent basis," Snyder said. "I have been pleased with his improvement."
Lamur came up big again at the end of the game, intercepting a Hawkins pass on the Buffaloes' final drive.
Hawkins and Hansen both took snaps in the second half, but no matter who was under center for Colorado, little changed in terms of effectiveness against the K-State defense. The quarterback duo combined to complete just 17 passes in 37 attempts. They combined to pass for 184 yards.
Now 3-1 in conference play for the first time since 2000, K-State continues to be perched in a spot few predicted prior to the season: atop the Big 12 North and in strong position to compete for the division crown. Their quest continues next Saturday, when the Wildcats travel to Norman, Okla., for a Halloween match up against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Despite their first-place standing, Gregory said no one on the squad was comfortable with their current position. "Maybe if we get to 7-1 (in Big 12 play), I'll bask a little bit."