IRVING, Texas — Last season wasn’t a very good year for Kansas State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh.
His defense ranked last in the Big 12 a year ago and 106th nationally — giving up a whopping 445 yards a game. Against the run, the Wildcats were even worse, surrendering 231 yards per game on the ground to rank 119th in the country.
Fans cried out for Cosh to be fired, as many felt a change was definitely needed in Manhattan. The years of dominating K-State defenses of the 1990s was all but a distant memory.
And though Cosh stayed, changes were made — this team got better. And as a result, the Wildcats are playing in the Cotton Bowl against Arkansas on Friday at Cowboys Stadium.
The Wildcats — playing in a pass-happy Big 12 that racks up yards — managed to trim that gaudy yardage total to 398 surrendered per game to rank fifth in the Big 12 and 75th nationally. Against the run, the Wildcats improved by more than 100 yards per game. And the 18 interceptions by the KSU defense ranks fifth nationally.
K-State won 10 games this season and many were a direct result of that once-putrid defense stepping up and making the plays it couldn’t, or didn’t make a year ago.
Many of the Wildcats point to the win at Miami as the game that started it all.
The Wildcats, in their road test of the season, went blow-for-blow with the Hurricanes and then came up with the stops when they needed them most, at the goal line in the final minute of the game.
K-State stuffed Miami on four straight plays at the goal line to win 28-24 and set in motion what would be a string of heart-stopping victories this season.
“That was a big game for us and really set the tempo for the rest of the season,” senior safety Tysyn Hartman said. “We won eight games by seven points or less and that was the first win we had against a formidable opponent.
“Everything was on the table, on the road and stopping a team at the goal line for the win was everything for us. We found a way to get the stops and there’s been countless times since then when we’ve needed a goal-line stand or big play when we needed to.”
Junior cornerback Nigel Malone said that win at Miami gave K-State the confidence it needed.
“Something really resonated with the defense and we started to realize that we could go out there and play with a lot of these teams,” said Malone, who has a Big 12-leading seven interceptions this season.
Emmanuel Lamur agreed.
“As we continued to win, we started to realize how good we really were,” he said. “We took advantage of that and tried to improve every week.”
Cosh had a feeling back in the spring that this team could be capable of such a turnaround, if everything fell into place.
“I felt these guys could be a good team because of their togetherness, their unselfishness and their pride in wanting to be good,” he said this week. “They wanted that and wanted to do something and wanted to be coached.
“They like practice and you don’t hear that nowadays. These guys like ball, like a coach likes ball. I thought we were really gaining leadership — both verbally and by example.”
That leadership has been across the board, too. From Hartman at safety to linebackers Arthur Brown, Tre Walker and Lamur to Ray Kibble and Jordan Voelker on the front four. Everyone has found a way to lead this team, Cosh said. Some do it by example and some do it more vocally.
“We’ve come together and played for each other, as brothers,” said Lamur, who is third on the team with 77 tackles. “We didn’t want to let each other down. We wanted to play for the person next to us.”
Cosh said Brown helped set the tone last season when he was a member of the scout team, sitting out after transferring to K-State from Miami.
“The year (Arthur) was here and had to sit out and play on scout team, he came to work, was prepared and praised his teammates,” he said. “He was involved. I think he laid the foundation then. It wasn’t about him — it was about us.
“You couple that with Emmanuel moving to linebacker. It was an unselfish act to move from safety to linebacker his senior year. That shows something.
“And you have the spirit of Tre Walker. You have that mix. It’s not just one guy because then you have the toughness of Ray Kibble up front.”
Hartman saw the improvement in the offseason as well, but even then, he wasn’t sure how it would all translate to gameday. Just how much improved would K-State be and would it be enough to be the difference between winning and losing?
“We saw the progress we made during the offseason in spring ball and during fall camp with some new additions,” Hartman said. “But it really was about some guys playing at a higher level than they did last year. Ray Kibble is one of those guys and we had a lot of guys like that. Seeing guys make that big jump gave us all confidence going into the season.”
The numbers, while better, still aren’t amazing — at least by the K-State standards of past years — but for this team, it’s not about the numbers, as much as making the plays when it needs to make the plays.
In many cases, that means when the game is on the line. In addition to the win at Miami, K-State got those kinds of plays to defeat Baylor, Texas Tech, Missouri, Texas A&M and Texas.
“On paper, it might not look too good, but we’re getting it done and winning games,” Malone said. “We’re forcing turnovers and taking advantage of opportunities and putting the offense in a position where they can score. That’s what it’s all about.”
On the flip side, Malone said he hopes someday this team doesn’t always have to rely on clutch plays at the end of ballgames.
“Sometimes it’s a blessing and a curse being in those positions,” he said. “We learn a lot from being in those positions and see how much heart the team has, but at the same time, if we played four quarters of football, we wouldn’t have been in those positions.”
Cosh called K-State’s clutch performances inspiring — especially considering where this defense came from last year.
“I’m proud to be their coach,” he said. “It makes my day to come out and see those guys everyday. They think they inspire each other, but they inspire us as coaches.
“We’ve been through some tough times — even during games — and these guys rally. They don’t flinch and they keep competing and keep fighting.”