As the Kansas State football team has surged in recent weeks, much of the attention has gone to the emergence of the offense and the improved play of quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams.
But the other side of the ball has been making strides, too.
There were growing pains along the way, especially in the first two games of the season, but the Wildcats’ defense has been especially strong in its last three games, all of which resulted in lopsided K-State victories.
Linebacker Jonathan Truman pointed to accountability as the reason for the recent surge.
“We’re accountable to each other,” he said. “I know that if I do something wrong, I’m letting down my whole team. That really hurts and I know every one of my teammates is the same way. If I mess up and it’s just on me, that’s fine, but if it hurts your teammates, that hurts worse.”
Safety Dante Barnett said the defense turned the corner after the loss to Texas to open conference play.
“We wanted to win,” Barnett said. “After the Texas loss, it was tough and we thought about it. We needed to play with more energy and be more consistent on the field. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Part of K-State’s improvement has undoubtedly come with the help of a softer schedule. After opening with three games against Big 12 title contenders, K-State rattled off dominant wins over West Virginia and Iowa State before taking advantage of a Texas Tech team that has struggled all year to stop powerful rushing attacks.
But the Texas Tech offense was the real deal last week, and after a shaky start, the Wildcat defense played some of its best football of the year in shutting down the Red Raiders in the first half and helping stake the team to a 35-10 halftime lead.
“Last week we got off to not a very good start,” K-State head coach Bill Snyder said. “Texas Tech had the first two drives of the ballgame, a total of 29 snaps and possessed the ball and put 10 points on the board. After those first two drives, we really settled down and played awful well. I think at that point in time, we established ourselves as being a little bit better defensively than we had been previously.”
With TCU coming to town Saturday, the K-State defense has another opportunity to shine. The Horned Frogs hang their hat on defense, ranking among the top teams in the league, but offensively, they have struggled. TCU is eighth in the league in scoring offense (23.2 points per game) and last in rushing offense (120.2 yards per game).
Part of TCU’s problem has been injuries — they’ve been forced into a two-quarterback system of their own for part of the year — but their inability to score points remains a mystery, at least to Snyder.
When asked why the TCU offense has struggled so much this year, Snyder had no answer.
“I said the same thing to both our coaching staff on Sunday morning and to our players on Monday — I don’t have the answer for that — I don’t know,” Snyder said. “They’ve got a guy that can throw it with the best of them, they’ve got a guy that can run it with the best of them, and he doesn’t throw it badly. They’ve got some running backs, depending on who is healthy and who’s not.
“They’ve got skilled people. I don’t know. I’m sure Gary’s got a great handle on it and would understand, but for the life of me, I don’t know.”
At quarterback, TCU has a thrower in Casey Pachall and a runner in Trevone Boykin. Boykin had three touchdowns on five carries against Iowa State last week, though he also lines up at receiver for the Horned Frogs.
Regardless of who lines up where, the K-State defense is looking to keep playing at a high level.
“The momentum is high,” Truman said. “We just truly believe that we have been getting better and taking steps forward each day and each week.”
Defensive lineman Travis Britz said the group is continuing to bond as the season wears on.
“We’re coming together, finding the leadership we needed to have early in the season and we’re making the plays we needed to make,” Britz said. “We’re executing now.”
Defensive end Ryan Mueller, who is tied for the nation’s lead in sacks, said the unit is playing looser.
“Guys are getting a lot more comfortable out there and familiar with situations and playing a little more loose, and not as timid to get to the ball,” he said. “We have coaches that demand perfection and we have guys on the defense who want to be perfect. That’s the goal. I’m glad we’re getting hot now.”