Four games in the books, and we stand 3-1. In the old days -- and by that, I mean pre-2003 and post-1995 -- that would have been pretty bad. Given the expectations coming into this season, I wouldn't have considered 3-1 a disaster. Certainly not the disaster it appears to be after the last two weeks.
Some people think a win is a win. Some think style points matter. While style points certainly matter in a very tangible way for teams competing for a spot in the mythical national championship game, they also matter in a different way for teams who are merely fighting for bowl eligibility.
Take last weekend's game against Louisiana-Lafayette for example. It goes down in the books as a win. But it was an eight-point victory over a team whose only win on the season was against Kent State. I should remind you that Iowa State has also defeated Kent State this season. On top of that, we gave up more than 500 yards of total offense and more than 300 yards rushing to a team that plays in the Sun Belt Conference.
Thus, we enter the Big 12 portion of our schedule, and I could not be more pessimistic. But here is an analysis, statistically and otherwise, of where we stand.
Even when you take into consideration the unimpressive level of competition, the K-State offense has been pretty good. As a team, the offense is averaging 298.8 yards passing and 440 total yards per game. Those yardage numbers have led to a 47.0 points per game average.
As expected, Josh Freeman has been at the center of the offense's general success. His line for the year reads 77/115 (67 percent), 276 yards per game, 11 TDs, two INTs. That's good by anyone's standards.
The rushing game has been anemic, but perhaps a spark has been found. In the last game against ULL, wide receiver Lamark Brown was moved to running back and, presto, he rushed for 125 yards on 4.2 yards per carry.
On the receiving end of Freeman's bullets has been transfer Brandon Banks. Through four games, Banks is averaging 115 yards per game and has scored six touchdowns. Overall, the receiving corps has been very solid, with five different players scoring touchdowns thus far.
One particularly pleasing statistic is the rate of touchdowns this team has scored when the offense penetrates the red zone. On almost 70 percent of possessions in the red zone this season, the Cats have ended with a touchdown. While that only ranks in the middle of the Big 12, it's certainly a welcome change from last season, when we put up six less than 60 percent of the time we drove inside the opponent's 20.
What else is positive? I can point to penalties, where we're tied for third in the conference with only 51.8 penalty yards per game (last year we averaged 75.2, dead last in the Big 12). Perhaps we should also mention sacks allowed, where we lead the Big 12 with a nice goose egg. As a whole, the measurable offensive numbers generally stack up quite nicely, thank you very much (all stats courtesy NCAAFootball.com):
Josh Freeman, 8th nationally in passing, 24th in scoring
Brandon Banks, 1st nationally in receiving yards per game
12th nationally in team passing, 23rd nationally in total offense, 11th nationally in passing efficiency
So why, despite all these impressive numbers, am I still a little concerned about the offense?
It starts with the running game, or lack thereof. K-State is averaging an anemic 142.5 yards rushing per game, which means we are being outrushed by 64 yards per game. While we have scored 10 rushing TDs this season, a lot of those have been on one-yard dives by our man-mountain quarterback (Freeman has six rushing TDs on the season). And finally there is the Louisville debacle, where we abandoned the rushing game completely, only attempting 12 rushes in the entire game.
Next up comes Freeman's play against Louisville. The Cardinals have by far the best defense the Cats have faced this season, and against them Freeman had by far his worst game of the year. He threw two interceptions, one being a terrible decision and the other, while not a bad decision, was at least partially due to his poor mechanics on the throw. The lack of a running game against UL permitted the Cardinals defenders to go after Freeman like Mark Mangino goes after a buffet, and Freeman did not react to the pressure well. His production suffered, he made poor decisions, and we lost. Not all his fault, but disconcerting considering the level of defense we will face in conference play will be much more like Louisville than like North Texas.
Speaking of which, while the offensive numbers have been impressive, they must be considered in the context of the opposition. Below is a breakdown of the defensive numbers of North Texas, Montana State, Louisville and ULL, and our production against those teams.
North Texas: 172.5 rushing yards/game (K-State 165), 315.8 passing yards per game (K-State 306), 488.2 total yards per game (K-State 471), 54.8 points per game (K-State 45)
Montana State: 122.5 rushing yards/game (K-State 177), 176.2 passing yards/game (K-State 304), 298.8 total yards per game (K-State 481), 31.2 points per game (K-State 69) (***Note that Montana State's stats are compiled against FCS competition)
Louisville: 70.8 rushing yards/game (K-State 30), 181.2 passing yards/game (K-State 313), 252 total yards/game (K-State 343), 23.0 points per game (K-State 29)
Louisiana-Lafayette: 261.5 rushing yards/game (K-State 198), 198.5 passing yards/game (K-State 272), 460.0 total yards/game (K-State 470), 35.8 points per game (K-State 45)
As these numbers show, the only game in which we significantly outperformed the opposing team's season averages was in the Montana State game, and MSU was playing up a level against us. We should expect to put up those kinds of numbers against such a team. What is particularly distressing to me is our inability to put up rushing yards that even come close to what our opponents give up on average. Even against anemic UNT, our offense contributed to the low side of UNT's rushing average for the year.
There really isn't much to say about the defense that numbers can't express, so I'll just get right to it (stats again courtesy NCAAFootball.com).
Rushing defense: 104th nationally, 206.5 yards/game
Passing defense: 22nd nationally, 164.0 yards/game
Total defense: 77th nationally, 370 yards/game
That pretty well sums it up, but we might as well look a little deeper while we're at it. The passing defense seems decent, right? Yeah, I'd take any unit that's in the top 25 in the country. Unfortunately, I think the reason we're giving up few yards passing is that our opposition 1) hasn't been very good yet, and 2) has realized we can be exploited much more expeditiously by the run than the pass.
North Texas averages 27 rushing attempts/game. Against K-State, they ran the ball 26 times. Montana State averages 41 rushing attempts/ game; against K-State, they ran the ball 36 times. Louisville averages 42 rushing attempts/game; against K-State, they ran the ball 55 times. Louisiana-Lafayette averages 45 rushing attempts/game; against K-State, they ran the ball 51 times.
The numbers in bold indicate the disparity between the opposition's rushing attempts since it was well and truly proven that we are atrocious at stopping the run. If there was ever any doubt, it has been removed. The way to beat K-State is to hand the ball off to a running back, any running back, and have him run forward. If there isn't a hole, whoever is in his way will probably miss the tackle.
So we can't stop the run and we may or may not be able to stop the pass. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success.
Eight regular season games remain, and the Cats need three wins to get to bowl eligibility. Of course, as poor as we have looked this season and the gap between when we were last on the national radar -- probably 2003 -- means that seven wins may be required to ensure a bowl berth. In that case, we have to win a minimum of three games, and more likely four, to get to a bowl.
The remaining schedule includes four games against nationally rated opponents (Texas Tech, Oklahoma, KU, Missouri), and three games against teams currently rated in the top 10 (Texas Tech, OU and Mizzou). While the last two seasons' tilts with Texas have shown me that no game should be written off, the defense has shown weaknesses much earlier than either of those teams did, leaving me very skeptical that wins against any of these teams can be achieved. Thus, we will need to win at least three and possibly all four of our games against Texas A&M, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa State. Every single one of these teams is eminently beatable, but we play on the road in two of them, and the road hasn't been kind to us in the Ron Prince era.
What this all boils down to is the very, very real possibility that this team could finish 4-8 or 5-7 this season. I explicitly stated before the season that the mere number of wins and losses this year would not decide whether Prince should stay or go, and I stick by that. However, it has become quite clear that the deficiencies we saw at the end of last season have not been adequately addressed.
I can't remember ever dreading a Big 12 slate more. Let's hope I'm wrong.