1. Jake Waters still needs to improve his awareness in the pocket.
Jake Waters clearly struggled when Auburn blitzed or otherwise got pressure on him, as it resulted in sacks, incompletions, generally unsuccessful scrambles, an interception, and a fumble. To be fair, quarterbacks usually do not do well when they are under pressure and especially when there is pressure without the other team even blitzing.
Despite that disclaimer, dating back to last year, Waters has often struggled making reads and not having his internal "get rid of the ball or get out" alarm go off when there has been pressure. There have been some improvements in his play in this area, but I think the majority of those are pre-snap reads where he identifies who to get the ball to quickly on such plays, although he has shown some success in making throws downfield when he is able to get out of the pocket (more on that below).
The bigger concern is when Waters drops back and has to work through his progressions and the opponent is able to keep contain on him. He can still be a bit delayed in working through his progressions to the point that he gets sacked.
Why is this a problem for Jake Waters? I think it is because he played junior college football (where he was very, very successful) in a system where he got rid of the ball very quickly and also where his team was talented enough to give him all day to throw the ball. Before junior college, Waters played in a smaller level high school in Iowa, so it's no surprise that he is still developing his internal clock on pass plays. Here is to hoping for some rapid improvement in this area, as well as some improved pass protection.
2. Did anyone else see TCU's defense line up against Auburn last week?
When I watch TCU play defense, they play a 4-2-5 that seems to often walk a couple safeties up pretty close against the opposing offense's running game. Inevitably, those safeties are sound in their play and very tough against the run game.
K-State seemed to employ a similar version of the TCU defense against Auburn by going with a host of guys with good size/speed ratios playing over the middle of the field (a point I emphasized last week), including Dakorey Johnson getting the start and all the plays at one linebacker position and Travis Green moving into the strong safety position. Dante Barnett was moved from strong to free safety, the spot formerly occupied by Dylan Schellenberg. While Auburn's success in the passing game (or at least with the talent of their receivers) and the success of K-State's defensive front, the Wildcats loosened up the defense some as the game wore on, but it still resembled TCU in operation and personnel.
I hate to bring up a painful memory, but our defense's play also reminded me very much of what Phil Bennett and Baylor did against us in 2012. Arguably, K-State's single-wing offense that season with Collin Klein had any similarities to Auburn's offense this year. Baylor had some athletic linebackers and physical safeties. Rather than attempting to match substitutes for K-State's various substitutions and packages, Baylor left in their skilled and versatile 11 defensive players in a 4-2-5 scheme for all or almost all of the snaps against the Wildcats, while also keying on the running game.
Against Auburn, K-State only subbed in Will Geary and DeAndre Roberts at defensive tackle and also utilized its third down pass rush package on a handful of occasions. Will Davis and Dylan Schellenberg did not play at all on defense. Nate Jackson only played at the end of the game for an injured Morgan Burns. In other words, the Wildcats relied on the starting 11 for about 90 percent of the snaps and did not vary much from that approach.
While we will never know, it would be interesting to know whether the K-State staff spent any time emulating either what TCU's defense does or else what Baylor was able to do to stymie the Wildcats' offense in 2012.
3. Line up in the i-formation and run the ball.
Good defensive line play is huge and there is only so much gameplanning that an offense can do to overcome its offensive line being overmatched. Auburn had a very good defensive line and a very fast defense overall. This is why I think it is foolish to attempt to run slow-developing zone read types of plays against teams like Auburn.
I understand all of the advantages and successes of the spread formation and running out of the shotgun formation. Also, I think that K-State will be able to utilize those packages with good success against some Big 12 defenses (hi, Texas Tech). However, when an offense is playing against a defense as fast as Auburn was, why give their defense time to run to the ball while your back is starting deep in the backfield without a head of steam?
In other words, why not line up in the i-formation and allow your running back to run downfield. This is especially true in goal line situations. Why snap the ball six yards into the backfield and risk losing almost that many yards?
Granted, this may not have made a difference in some of those short yardage and goal line situations against Auburn. It was clear that Jake Waters was not fast enough to seriously harm Auburn unless they would get out of position, but sometimes allowing your running back to get two or three yards, with the potential for more can be a good result.
I have seen teams (for example, Texas with Colt McCoy, Jamal Charles, and a big and talented offensive line, with their loss in Manhattan) inexplicably negate their advantage and play into the defense's hands simply because they are stuck in the habit of running out of the shotgun. Running well out of the i-formation has been a staple of Bill Snyder teams and it is one that should see increased utilization in some situations.
4. In a game full of copycats, K-State needs an effective counter to Auburn's defensive strategy.
Auburn's defensive strategy and execution against K-State was brilliant. Their superior defensive line largely snuffed out our running game. They keyed on Tyler Lockett to take him out of the passing game. They were generally quite physical with our receivers and, with the exception of Curry Sexton's underneath routes, were able to keep our guys from getting open. They kept contain on their pass rush, which forced Jake Waters, who described himself as being 5'10" or 5'11" when he signed (look at him next to the offensive linemen and you will notice he is clearly not 6'1") to hit precision passes in the short- and medium-distance passing game, which is not his strong suit and was complicated by being confined to the pocket.
Of course, Waters could also force it deep to the only home run threat (Lockett). While K-State was able to gain some yards, its offense struggled in the red zone, due to its inability to run and the reduced space for the underneath passing game. Since Lockett was unable to break long plays in the passing game, instead of a 70-yard touchdown drive, K-State would go on 60 and 68 yard drives for turnovers and missed field goals
It's worth noting that not many teams K-State will face this year can run out personnel like Auburn did, but that does not mean that other teams will not employ the same strategy that they used. K-State needs to have an effective counter to this strategy. Against Auburn, it attempted, with some success, to exploit their linebackers' lack of pass coverage skills by getting players out in space.
As mentioned by Jon Morse earlier this week, it would seem that utilization of the tight ends and Gronk over the middle would be a very good way to neutralize this type of approach. In all likelihood, our coaching staff probably felt that additional pass protection by these players outweighed the benefit of releasing them as targets in the passing game. Regardless of what it looks like, the Wildcats need to have a clear plan to open up the middle of the field against opposing defenses, even if the ground game is not clicking.
5. The defense looked good against Auburn, but curb the enthusiasm, for now.
Understandably, the Wildcats' fan base has become very excited about the Wildcats' defensive effort last week. To be sure, the defense showed up to play and it is to be applauded. I would caution, however, that it not be presumed that the Wildcats are ready to shut down everyone else on their schedule.
First, Auburn is a run-based offense. Several of the teams left on K-State's schedule are pass-based offenses that throw to set up the run. Many Big 12 offenses operate in space better than Auburn. As a result, it is not safe to presume that K-State held Auburn in check, so they should be able to stop Texas Tech because their offense is not as proficient. While I think K-State will be able to stop or at least slow down Texas Tech, every game is about matchups and success against one style does not guarantee success against any other team, especially if that other team has a contrasting style. While I do not think it has been said too much by K-State people, it is also possible that Auburn will not be the offensive machine that it sometimes was a year ago. There has been some attrition through graduation, early entries to the NFL draft, and injuries, which appear to have taken some of the punch out of their offense.
So what should K-State fans hold onto as optimism from the Auburn game? The ability to stop the run and the emergence of Dakorey Johnson are the answers. If Kansas State's defensive line can continue to play as solidly as they have started off this year, that will pay huge dividends in Big 12 play because of the ability to possibly make opponents' offenses one dimensional. Also, the play of Dakorey Johnson is a huge development for the team's defense of the spread offenses. These will be huge keys to stopping offenses like Oklahoma and Baylor, which are adept at both running and passing the football.