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State of K-State (Football Edition)

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I was really hoping this would be put off for another month or so, but alas we haven't reached the point in college football where a 5-7 record gets you into a bowl.  As such, now is as good a time as any to step back and assess the state of our beloved football program right now.  As always, your feedback is welcomed in the comments.

Most of us would be hard-pressed to find a football season that began with so much promise, looked so promising after four games, even six games, and then went so horribly, completely wrong.  After the Auburn game, despite the loss, I felt confident in just about every aspect of the game.  Josh Freeman looked like a relaxed, confident field general at quarterback.  Jordy Nelson looked like the rock-steady possession receiver we knew in 2005.  The defense flew all over the field in the 3-4 defense, befuddling fifth-year senior Brandon Cox and all the supposedly unbelievable athletes fielded by a top-tier SEC team.  The only real question was the offensive line, as we lacked any real rushing threat and Freeman got blown up from the blind side to put the ball away.  Alas, a lot of the credit for that can go to Auburn's Quentin Groves.  All-in-all, we all felt very good about the season at that point.

After the trip to the prettiest little town on the plains, we saw the team roll through two gimmes to set up a trip to Austin.  Granted, at this point in the year we know Texas really was not a very good team this year, but they certainly had their moments.  And remember this, when night fell on September 29th, K-State was 3-1, ranked in the top 25, and looked for all the world like a contender for the Big 12 North.

The hopes for a really big season, not to mention a long and proud streak, came to an end the next week against KU.  Hindsight has put that game in perspective as well, as the rest of the year showed KU wasn't the fraud we all thought they were then, despite the loss to Mizzou last night.  The 'beaks are certainly not a legit national title contender, but they are one of the 10 best teams in the nation.

Despite the crushing loss to KU, we saw the team regroup and pretty much dominate a Colorado team that was looking good at the time, and has proven a solid, if unspectacular team throughout the season.  The Buffs are going bowling, showing solid improvement over last year's 2-10 campaign.  

I think more importantly, the game against Colorado began to show the first chinks in the armor that was K-State's defense.  Hugh Charles gashed the defense for 171 yards, and a lot of that came in the first half.  Prior to that game, we had pretty much limited the rushing attacks of the teams we had played, including Auburn (62 rushing yards), SJSU (73 rushing yards), MO State (69 yards), and Texas (113 rushing yards).  KU had a good game running the ball, but even in that one the Cats held them under 200 rushing yards.

Undoubtedly, the turning point in the season came at Oklahoma State.  That was really the beginning of the slide, as we saw a disaster of a defensive "effort" and "gameplan" from which the team would never really recover.  

It's hard to really put a finger on what went so horribly wrong at that point.  Obviously, injuries were part of it.  I see it as kind of a confluence of events that made up the perfect storm of defensive ineptitude.  First of all, while the 3-4 scheme allowed some of our more skilled players to make plays early in the season, it was a terrible scheme later in the year with the personnel that survived.  A 3-4 simply does not work with a severely undersized defensive line, no playmakers at defensive end, and pedestrian linebackers.  Moving Ian Campbell to OLB did not prove to be a good decision, as we basically turned a stellar defensive end into a middling linebacker.

Of course, we know all too well how the season ended up.  Just to illustrate the collapse in full detail, here are our averages over the last four games (Iowa State, Nebraska, Mizzou and Fresno State):

Rushing yards per game: 170.5
Passing yards per game: 336
Total yards per game: 506.5

Contrast that with the games against our first three conference opponents (Texas, KU, Colorado) and our best non-conference opponent (Auburn):

Rushing yards per game: 133.25
Passing yards per game: 234
Total yards per game: 367.25

Obviously, some of what we saw as far as defensive self-destruction was scheme related.  But some of it goes deeper, into more intangible things that are harder to measure.  I hate to say it, but some if it seems to go back to what I was talking about earlier in the year...

I'm also not yet convinced that this whole "assistants running stairs" thing is evidence of Prince's tyranny.  Maybe it was done as punishment.  If so, I'm on record as saying that's an exceptionally odd way of handling things, and not the best way to handle the situation.  But the scribes in the stadium didn't have any better access than anyone else.  It may be an internal thing with the coaches about accountability.

I didn't say everything I was thinking at that point, because I didn't have any proof (it was written prior to the Auburn game).  After about six games, I was thinking the Ron Prince doubters were wrong.  They said he was a tyrant, and thus his assistant coaches and players wouldn't work hard for him.  I thought the Auburn and Texas games had put those questions to rest.  But the last four games left little doubt that there was a serious disconnect between the coaches and the players.

What are we left with?  At this point, we're left with a coach and coaching staff who don't have any identity.  For a while, we thought the identity was defense.  The above stats conclusively demonstrate that has gone out the window.  For a while, we thought it was special teams.  But we haven't seen any game-changing plays on special teams since the Baylor game, and we have given up huge special teams plays in the last four games.  

The offense never has had any identity, other than trying to get Josh Freeman as many big numbers as possible.  For some reason, James Johnson and Leon Patton get only token inclusion in the offensive gameplan.  Johnson and Patton broke touchdown runs of 67 and 45 yards, respectively...and got a combined 12 carries on the day.  I realize we were behind big after the second quarter and needed to throw, but we didn't need to throw as much as we did.  After a successful first quarter running the ball, we came out (attempting) to throw on first down, and Freeman fumbles on our own six yard line.  Then the defense got rolling--in the wrong direction--and it was all but over.

Part of the problems with the offense obviously go back to the offensive line.  The fact that we haven't given up many sacks this year is partially because we never throw the ball downfield (we averaged a whopping 6.7 yards per pass attempt this year).  For that, I give the coaching staff credit.  They recognized we would have trouble keeping the pass rush at bay, and thus threw the ball short.  But without a deep threat, defenses will eventually take the short stuff away and all bets are off.  I sound like a skipping CD, but really, the offensive line is the weakness of this team and has been since 2004.  This program will never get back to the level of play it exhibited in the late 1990s and earlier this decade unless we get offensive linemen who can stop a pass rush and open holes for the running game.

We also won't get to that point with playcalling like we've seen this year.  Which brings us back to the coaches.  What have we seen from Ron Prince at this point.  Well, we've seen a 12-13 record in two years.  That's statistically an improvement over the 9-13 mark in Bill Snyder's last two years.  We also saw a bowl game, which resulted in an ugly beatdown by Rutgers.  We've seen two wins over a top 10 team, although both were against Texas, and we've all seen that the Texas of the last two years was not the Texas of 2005.

We've seen massive coaching staff changes.  After just one year in Manhattan, we saw Raheem Morris, Tim Horton, Pat Washington and James Jones leave, all for positions that really weren't a whole lot better than their job at K-State.

We've seen a lot of turnover among players, most notably quarterbacks.  Between April 2006 and August 2006, three quarterbacks transferred (Allan Evridge, Kevin Lopina and Allen Webb) from K-State.

We've seen an 0-4 record against the two major rivals of this program, KU and Nebraska.  Included in those losses were a 39-20 blowout last year against KU and the embarrassing 73-31 loss to Nebraska this year.

We've seen losses this year to Iowa State and Fresno State, and last year we saw losses to Baylor and a 6-6 KU team.

By themselves, most of these occurrences could be rationalized as a mistake, something that isn't a big deal in and of itself.  But when you put them together, you have a pattern of mistakes and poor performances.  Early in this season, I complained that this team was inconsistent...I long for those days now, just to see the occasional ups amid the downs.  And now, looking back at the quarterback situation, it appears likely Prince either promised Josh Freeman something or didn't make the competition for the starting job a level playing field.  One quarterback in understandable.  Two is curious.  Three is highly questionable.

It's too early to know what will happen this offseason.  But if we continue to see player transfers and assistant coaching defections in the next nine months, our worst fears may be confirmed.  We took a chance on Ron Prince despite the plethora of Snyder Disciples that could have come in and taken the job.  We have seen that the "Snyder Way" isn't a lost cause, given the performances this year by KU and South Florida, not to mention recent showings by Oklahoma, TCU and Wisconsin.

That does not mean I'm calling for Ron Prince's firing.  You can't fire a coach after only two years, barring some sort of major scandal.  Some say this team has returned to its pre-Snyder days of Futility U.  Spare me that comparison, at least for the time being.  This team won five games this year, in the 1980s it took six or seven years to win that many.  Ron Prince should and will get next year, and in my opinion should get 2009, as well.  I realize that Mark Mangino started in a bigger hole at KU than Prince did at K-State, but KU has proven the worth of being patient with a coach.

With all that said, we need to look at where we are within the Big 12 North division.  Mizzou is one game from playing for a national title.  KU went 11-1 this year.  Colorado is bowl-eligible this year after going 2-10 last year.  Iowa State appears to have made major strides this year under Gene Chizik, despite the overall record.  Only Nebraska is in a big hole, but with the athletes they have up there, vast improvement could occur if they bring in a coach whose offense doesn't require NASA rocket scientists to understand and a defensive coordinator who can actually coach.  

The point is, we can't mess around for too long, or we may find ourselves buried within a rapidly improving division.  The period of rationalizing and making excuses for Ron Prince has ended at BOTC.  It's time to see results.