Strong defenses helped carry the dominant Kansas State football teams for nearly a decade in Bill Snyder’s first tenure as head coach.
And while this season’s defense has a long way to go before it joins the ranks of K-State’s all-time best, the unit has done its part recently in giving the Wildcats a chance to win its last three games.
That’s significant, because after replacing nine starters from a year ago, the defense was expected to be the weak link this year. After all, a lot of the new faces are just now getting on the field for the first time.
“I think they have gotten increasingly better,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “There’s still a distance away from where they have to be in order to for us to have any continued success, but the numbers have gotten better.”
K-State (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) has been especially good in the last two and half games — going back to the second half at Oklahoma State. The Wildcats held the Cowboys to just one touchdown and three field goals in the second half. All three field goals came on four-play defensive stands after K-State turned the ball over inside its own 50 with two interceptions and a fumble.
Against Baylor, the Wildcats held the Bears to 35 points and 446 yards — 35 points and nearly 400 yards below their average for the season. Then last Saturday, K-State held West Virginia to 4 of 16 on third down, just 110 yards on its final four possessions and only three second-half points.
“That’s just a compliment to Tom Hayes, our defensive coordinator,” K-State defensive end Ryan Mueller said following last week’s win. “He’s doing a great job for us and making calls, and preparing us prior to the game.”
There have been several players leading the Wildcats’ defensive stand, including end Mueller, linebacker Blake Slaughter and safety Ty Zimmerman. Slaughter leads K-State with 61 tackles, while Zimmerman is second at 55. Mueller has done a bit of everything for the Wildcats, registering 33 stops — 9.5 for a loss — to go along with four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a team-leading six sacks.
K-State — which hosts Iowa State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday — has held opponents to two touchdowns and four field goals on seven drives starting inside the 50-yard line in the last 10 quarters.
“We’ve been better consistently, which is a product of repetition and the discipline that it takes to be where you’re supposed to be time after time,” Snyder said. “After the Baylor ballgame, I thought our defensive front seven played well. And they played well in this most recent ballgame, so there was a consistency about them…
“We not only have to maintain that, but improve upon it, which is why you practice. I think there are some other areas — we still gave up some big plays (against West Virginia), so that’s a factor. There’s some issues with some of our tackling and support angles, and that’s been ongoing.”
K-State hasn’t been perfect defensively. As good as the Wildcats were against the Bears, they still surrendered touchdown passes of 93, 72 and 54 yards and committed a personal foul that led to another score.
“We still have some issues there,” Snyder said. “Some people refer to it as execution, but to me, they’re all capable of it — it’s just doing it snap after snap after snap. We haven’t consummated the deal in that regard. We still have some things loose ended in that respect.
“In other words, we are just not 100-percent consistent about being where we are supposed to be. Consequently, the end result is you give up big plays, and we still gave up big plays in both of those ball games.”
K-State is sixth in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 379.1 yards and 24.1 points a game. The Wildcats are third in fewest first downs allowed, though, behind only Oklahoma and Baylor. A year ago, the Wildcats were third in total defense, allowing just three fewer yards and two less points per game than they are this season — and that defense had Arthur Brown.
The Wildcats are giving up nearly 150 rushing yards a game, but have allowed just 118 yards a game in their last three, including 85 rushing yards to Oklahoma State. The season didn’t start out that way, though. In the two losses to North Dakota State and Texas, K-State surrendered 212 and 227 yards on the ground, respectively.
“I think we’ve made strides,” Snyder said. “I think the degree of toughness with which they play has been enhanced, not just over the last game-and-a-half, but over the course of the season.
“I think we still have the discipline issues, and when I say discipline I mean the self-discipline of doing what you are assigned to do the right way every time.”
Snyder wants to still see more pressure on the quarterback and more turnovers created. The Wildcats are near the bottom of the league with only 13 sacks, 11 fewer than Big 12 leader TCU, and second-to-last in interceptions with five. Complicating that is that K-State is last in turnover margin with just nine takeaways compared to 17 giveaways.
The Wildcats could see their sack numbers go up this weekend, as the Cyclones (1-6, 0-4) are last in the Big 12 with 26 sacks allowed through seven games.
“I can’t tell you what the results will be on Saturday,” Snyder said. “There’s always that thing where you look at people, look at numbers and statistics and ask, ‘They have given up a lot of sacks, so how vulnerable are they?’
“Well, what are they working on all day, every day? They know right now what the numbers are, so they are working more diligently, not only in their pass protection, but also how quickly they get the ball off and maybe pulling some backs in to help wherever they may be having trouble. People work on it and people get better at it. Good programs eliminate mistakes and Iowa State is an awful good program. It will not be the easy task that the numbers might indicate.”