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Kansas State passing game looks to get back on track; receivers seek redemption, with or without Malik Knowles

It wasn’t tough for Dalton Schoen to review film of Kansas State’s loss to Oklahoma State last week; it was many levels of magnitude more difficult. Watching the tape, Schoen said, was downright “sickening” to lay eyes on.

Of all the problematic areas in the Wildcats’ 26-13 defeat to the Cowboys, few were more glaring than the passing game, specifically the wide receivers. Of the 11 passes quarterback Skylar Thompson completed — of the 23 he threw — barely half (six) ended in the hands of his wideouts. The other five were split between two running backs (Jordon Brown and Harry Trotter) and a tight end (Sammy Wheeler).

Upon reflection, Schoen, the team’s most experienced receiver, took his unit’s issues personally.

“I didn’t do a good job of winning against that man-to-man coverage,” said Schoen, the lone senior in the Wildcats’ receiving corps. “But it just goes back to working on those fundamental-type things in beating man-to-man coverage and beating more of that press-man (coverage) we weren’t used to seeing traditionally.”

Fellow receiver Landry Weber also had a hard time sitting through film review of the setback.

“It was tough, it was tough,” Weber said. “Not our best game. We needed to play better. We needed to execute better. Sometimes you get beat, and we got beat. That’s not something fun to accept. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Looking back at what went wrong, and why, provides a blueprint for how K-State’s pass-catchers can try to avoid similarly lackluster performances going forward.

Down a star

Despite entering last week’s game ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, and carrying a 3-0 record with them, K-State’s players and coaches were under no illusion that beating the Cowboys on the road would be an easy endeavor. Then, another obstacle arose: Malik Knowles, the Wildcats’ top receiver statistically, wouldn’t be able to play after suffering a lower-body injury. He didn’t even make the trip to Stillwater, Oklahoma, with the team.

With one less weapon available for K-State, winning a potential shootout with the well-stocked Oklahoma State offense became even more unlikely.

But using Knowles’ absence as an excuse was an explanation Weber couldn’t accept.

“That doesn’t affect our preparation at all. We rotate a lot in practice,” he said. “It was a little late in the week that we found out he wasn’t going to go, but that doesn’t affect anything. Everybody’s ready to go. We would have loved to have him out there, but we were ready.”

Besides, Schoen said whether Knowles had played or not, the Cowboys already had settled on their defensive game plan.

“I think they wanted to stack the box and make us beat them one on one,” said Schoen, who had three receptions for 23 yards last week. “Obviously, having Malik out there would have probably helped beat that one-on-one coverage a little more, would have helped us stretch the defense deeper. But at the end of the day, we had the personnel to do it. We just have to go out and actually execute it and be good at the line of scrimmage with the tough routes against man to man.”

Knowles’ status for Saturday’s Big 12 home opener against Baylor — which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in a nationally televised contest on ESPN2 — still isn’t known. During his weekly press conference Tuesday, K-State head coach Chris Klieman deemed Knowles’ availability as “week to week.”

A redshirt freshman, Knowles ranked first on the team in every major receiving category prior to last week; with the benefit of an extra game, Schoen has edged ahead in receptions (10 to 9) and yardage (150 to 137), though they both own a pair of touchdown catches.

As much as receivers coach Jason Ray would love to have Knowles back in the fold in time for Saturday’s kickoff, the Wildcats won’t rush the Texas native back before he’s ready.

“He’s engaged with what we’re doing,” Ray said. “He’s getting treatment. He’s doing what he has to do to get back on the field to feel good about it. But we have to be smart. We have to keep the kid’s best interests at heart so that he can come back and be ready to play and not put himself at risk.”

With Knowles already stamping himself as a force to be reckoned with early this season, Ray admits it’s not easy to stomach seeing one of his players on the mend — especially one with as bright a future as Knowles appears to have. Ray said he might even be more frustrated about the injury than Knowles himself.

“I feel for the kid, more than anything,” Ray said. “He loves football. He loves playing the game. He loves being around it. He loves the process. When you see a kid who really enjoys what we’re doing right now — he’s not been able to participate in it from a standpoint of playing — it’s disappointing that way. But when he shows up and he has a good attitude, then it all kind of comes back full circle, because I know that he’s getting better.”

The loss

Oklahoma State’s formula to shut down K-State’s aerial attack wasn’t complicated. Ask Schoen and Weber, and they would say the Cowboys lined up and played physical, man-to-man coverage.

And the Wildcats simply couldn’t beat it with any regularity.

“We knew going into the game that they were going to play that press man and try to clamp us down at the line,” Schoen said. “At the end of the day, it’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to see this’ and it’s another thing to be prepared to beat it and to go out and actually execute and do it.”

Weber pointed out Oklahoma State made it doubly tough for K-State to get its passing game off the ground for another reason: strength in numbers.

“The thing that I noticed on film was a lot of times when we were passing, they were dropping eight guys into coverage,” Weber said. “That’s just tough to beat when you’ve got three or four guys running out and eight guys in coverage. So props to them for a good call on defense. We’ve just got to execute.”

Taking ownership

Ray conceded that any coach would be worried that the success the Cowboys’ defense had against the Wildcats’ receivers might serve as a blueprint for future foes. The way to circumvent that, he said, is preparation.

“Individual players have to look at the tape and say, ‘Yes, I have to get better at this,’ because the tape does not lie,” Ray said. “In a guy’s head, typically before watching the film, they think they did something on Saturdays and they think that they were productive in some kind of way, but when you watch the tape and it says you weren’t successful on this rep or that rep, then you’ve got to take accountability and get better at practice, myself included.”

The deficiencies Ray picked up on already are being corrected by his group.

“You’ve just got to be good at the line with your feet and with your hands,” Weber said. “If he’s tight around you, get his hands off of you. We believe we can beat it. We’re not worried about that. It’s just, we’ve got to execute better.”

Schoen concurred, saying the key is getting off the ball in the correct manner.

“It’s just being more aggressive at the line of scrimmage, being more physical at the top of routes, working on running more with man routes — you’ve got to stay running out of your breaks, you’ve got to lose a yard here or there to make sure you create more separation, whereas we were more used to seeing zone,” Schoen said. “So it’s just preparing for all of that.”

The quarterback

Thompson didn’t mince his words after Saturday’s loss.

Not having Knowles on the field, he said, “sucked.” But such is life.

“Some things happen that you can’t control that are unfortunate,” said Thompson, K-State’s starting quarterback. “But at the same time, we needed to pick up for him in other areas. We just didn’t do that. ... He’s a great football player. We’ve got to give him some time to get healthy for however long that will be.”

Thompson didn’t let himself off the hook, either. After hitting less than 50% of his pass attempts (11 of 23) and not throwing a touchdown in a game for the first time this season, he said the offensive woes fell on him, too. To prevent that from becoming a systemic issue instead of a one-game anomaly, Thompson said he must do a better job of trusting his receivers.

“There’s a lot of different ways to go about it, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to get open and I’ve got to make the right reads and get them the ball,” he said. “I felt like there were just a lot of things up and down, going wrong, whether we were having trouble getting separation or I was getting off a read too quick or we were missing a block up front to where I was getting pressure.”

There wasn’t a single time all game, Thompson said, when he felt the offense had any semblance of rhythm.

“We just couldn’t get it clicking on all cylinders,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for us this week. I’m going to work with those guys as much as I can, try to build continuity, try to build trust with them. That’s all we can do.”

Potential replacements

If Knowles misses his second straight game, Klieman doesn't want it mentioned — or offered as justification if the offense doesn't run as smoothly Saturday as it did the first three weeks of the season. It's a point he hit upon following last week's loss.

"Shoot, we didn't play (with) Wyatt Hubert and Walt Neil, and we found a way to persevere at Mississippi State," he said. "It's the next man up."

The way Klieman sees it, Knowles standing next to him on the sideline only would mean more opportunities for the other receivers on the roster. He refused to single out any specific wideout; replacing Knowles, Klieman said, is on "everybody." Dialing up certain play calls goes hand in hand with that.

"We also have to design some things for those guys to get open and design some things where we protect a little longer so that we can find some openings and find some cracks," Klieman said. "Without question, we’ll look at everybody."

In a departure from previous weeks, Klieman said the Wildcats would pit their ones versus ones during practice: the starting wideouts versus the starting secondary. Klieman then expanded his answer beyond the receivers. If Knowles can't go, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack.

"It’s the offensive line, and it’s the quarterbacks, it’s the running backs, it’s the defense, it’s everybody," he said. "Everybody had to play better ... If we don’t have Malik, everybody has to raise their level of play up.”

Klieman's words about the importance of the team more so than the sum of its (wide receiver) parts aside, the question lingers: Who will fill the void left by Knowles, assuming he doesn't play? 

Two players in particular stand out: third-year sophomore Chabastin Taylor and true freshman Joshua Youngblood. The former, like Knowles, is a Texas native. The latter hails from Florida, a player who impressed so much in summer workouts Thompson went out of his way to praise Youngblood at Big 12 Media Days in July.

Taylor had a memorable outing in the 2018 Purple/White spring game. Yet his career numbers won't make anyone do a double take: eight catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.

"Malik was on that upward (trajectory), and now guys have to fill that role and take on their own role and get better," said Ray, noting Taylor was among that group of possible successors. "If they can do that, we'll be in good shape."

Youngblood has seen limited action in the first four games, with one reception for 12 yards and one carry (on an end-around) that went for 11 yards against the Cowboys last week. 

His progress through the first third of the season, Ray said, is exactly as one would think for any freshman. Youngblood has begun to settle into the routine of juggling football with college-level classes. It hasn't come without growing pains, however.

"He's away from home, quite a ways, combating a little bit of homesickness," Ray said. "But the kid's doing great. He's a kid, from a football standpoint, that we've got to expect a lot more out of, and he's got to expect more out of himself and just continue to get better."

At practice, Youngblood still has moments that remind coaches and teammates he's a freshman — like "maybe looking at the bee that's flying by his head," Ray said with a smile — but just as quickly, makes a play that turns heads. Ray expects that to become commonplace in the years to come.

"If he locks in and focuses — and he's a focused kid for his age — then he's going to be a special player," Ray said.

But the far-off future doesn't mean much to the 2019 Wildcats. K-State's receivers are singularly focused on the present, and how to put the past behind them. That started Monday, with the receivers huddling up as a group after the coaching staff left to talk among themselves. The gist of the discussion: They had to get better, by any means necessary. Staying after practice to catch more passes. Staying later to watch more film. Just working harder, period.

Last week's forgettable showing did nothing to dent the confidence of K-State's receivers.

"We believe in each other 100%," Weber said. "There's no problem. Next man up. We'll be all right."