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K-State vs. Auburn: Don't Let NARRATIVES Distort Reality

K-State lost to Auburn, 20-14, last night in Manhattan. No moral victories, but the Wildcats held their own against the reigning SEC champions, and in so doing, put another dagger in the ESS-EEE-SEE superiority narrative.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The real world is an ugly place that's difficult to understand.

So we construct narratives to help us. We create good guys and bad guys. The white hats and the black hats. One side is virtuous, the other deplorable. It helps us move through the gritty, difficult reality we face every day. Truth is less clear based on our preconceived notions, which we abandon but reluctantly.

So when I talk about how K-State played in this game, don't equate it with looking for a moral victory. It's not looking for a win that the final score doesn't justify. It's pointing out the reality of the game played on the field.

Auburn won the game last night, and deservedly so. Gus Malzahn is a fantastic coach, with good players at the skill positions and a solid offensive line. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a fantastic defensive line, along with size and speed at every other position. Auburn plays aggressively, betting they can make a play before you beat their aggression for a big play of your own.

Last year, Auburn finished 8-1 against SEC competition and played Florida State for the national title. In those 10 games, here were Auburn's offensive statistics:

  • Average Passing Yards: 174.9
  • Average Rushing Yards: 306.7
  • Average Total Yards: 481.6

In case you had forgotten, here are Auburn's stats against K-State last night:

  • Passing Yards: 231
  • Rushing Yards: 128
  • Total Yards: 359
K-State held Auburn to fewer rushing yards than every SEC (plus Florida State) defense it faced last year other than Mississippi State in the third week of the season. The Wildcats held Auburn to fewer total yards than every single defense it faced last season.

Obvious caveats apply. Auburn had running back Tre Mason last year (third-round NFL draft pick) and OT Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. But Auburn replaced Mason with Cameron Artis-Payne, a four-star 2013 recruit out of junior college. Auburn's starting offensive line consisted of Shon Coleman (five-star recruit), Chad Slade (three-star recruit), Reese Dismukes (four-star recruit), Avery Young (four-star recruit), and Patrick Miller (four-star recruit).

K-State does not have the best defense in the Big 12. That honor will likely go to Oklahoma this year. In fact, by advanced stats, K-State was a below-average defense to this point in the 2014 season, ranking 82nd in S&P+. And K-State countered Auburn's star-studded offensive lineup, led by offensive genius Gus Malzahn, with the following starting lineup:

Ryan Mueller (unranked, walk-on), Travis Britz (two-star recruit), Valentino Coleman (unranked), Jordan Wills (three-star recruit), Dakorey Johnson (three-star recruit), Jonathan Truman (unranked), Randall Evans (unranked), Danzel McDaniel (three-star recruit), Dante Barnett (two-star recruit), Travis Green (three-star recruit) and Morgan Burns (three-star recruit).

Fine, but K-State still lost. Obviously a true statement, but it elides a basic understanding of cause and effect, and the understanding that football is a game comprising multiple components. It reminds me of people who still rely on won-loss records for pitchers in baseball. A pitcher can pitch a fantastic game, give up one unearned run, and take a loss because his offense can't score. Like pitching in baseball, it takes more than good defense to win in football.

K-State did not lose this game because of its defense. By raw numbers, its defense was as good or better than all the SEC units Auburn faced last year, and far better than the Arkansas unit the Plainsmen faced this year.* On a per-play basis, K-State held Auburn to 4.7 yards per play, more than a yard below the national average from last season.

*Auburn gained 292 passing yards and 302 rushing yards against Arkansas, for 595 total yards.

By contrast, K-State's offense was not good last night. But it was not good in large part due to what Auburn has and what Auburn did. Let's illustrate by taking a look at K-State's starting offensive line:

Cody Whitehair (three-star recruit), Boston Stiverson (two-star recruit), B.J. Finney (two-star recruit), Luke Hayes (three-star recruit), and Matt Kleinsorge (unranked).

Auburn countered with the following defensive lineup:

DaVonte Lambert (four-star recruit), Montravius Adams (five-star recruit), Ben Bradley (four-star recruit), LaDarius Owens (four-star recruit), Robenson Therezie (four-star recruit), Cassanova McKinzy (four-star recruit), Kris Frost (five-star recruit), Jonathan Jones (three-star recruit), Johnathan Ford (four-star recruit), Joshua Holsey (four-star recruit) and Jonathon Mincy (three-star recruit)

K-State's offensive line could not block Auburn's defensive linemen. Jake Waters was under pressure constantly, and the Tigers were able to take away K-State's POP pass weapon by getting to Waters before Zach Trujillo or Glenn Gronkowski could even release into the pattern. And K-State couldn't establish any consistent rushing attack at all, averaging only 1.5 yards per carry even after controlling for sacks.

Fine, K-State couldn't run the ball. But the Wildcats still had All-American wide receiver Tyler Lockett, matched up against an Auburn secondary that looked vulnerable, ranked 110th in Passing S&P after the first two weeks. The problem is that Lockett is 5'11", 175 lbs. and was matched up against cornerbacks like Jonathan Jones (182 lbs.) and Jonathon Mincy (196 lbs.). Auburn's corners were big enough to body up with Lockett at the line of scrimmage and then turn and run with him down the field. And without any credible rushing threat at all, the Tigers could commit safety help over the top to keep Lockett in check. Curry Sexton had the best game of his career because Auburn keyed on Lockett, but Sexton isn't enough of a weapon to consistently hurt opposing defenses.

Auburn's defense isn't that great against equally talented offenses. Teams with offensive lines big enough to match the Tigers' size and physicality up front, and the speed to challenge Auburn's back seven, will have success against the Tigers. K-State has some good players on offense, but Auburn was able to take K-State out of what it wanted to do.

So K-State's defense turned in a fantastic effort against Auburn, as good as any we've seen in the last two seasons, but the offense just couldn't match up with the Tigers defense. And K-State only lost by six, you say?!?

In a game like this, we saw very clearly the difference between one team's "perfect game" and the game they actually played. While Lockett will go down as one of K-State's greatest wide receivers ever, he's undersized and thus has a hard time getting off press coverage from capable corners, and he tends to cradle-catch rather than use his hands.

This propensity hurt K-State at the worst possible time. With K-State on Auburn's one-yard line after an unsuccessful first-down run by Charles Jones out of the wildcat formation, K-State ran an exchange route, with Lockett running inside while Sexton ran to the sideline. It worked, Lockett was wide open, Waters hit him in the numbers, and Lockett let the ball get into his body, it deflected into the air, and Jonathan Jones intercepted the pass in the end zone.

Criticize the play call if you want, but it worked perfectly. Lockett was open, Waters hit him, and Lockett catches well-thrown passes at least eight out of 10 times. But when it really mattered, he missed, and the worst possible result occurred.

Last season, Jack Cantele connected on 11-13 field goals he attempted, including 4-5 on kicks between 40-49 yards. His only other miss came from more than 50 yards away. But last night, he missed all three field goals he attempted, from 41, 42 and 22 yards*. So even if we generously round his average down from last year and assume that he would only make two out of the three field goals he attempted last night, we still should have scored six points on field goals.

*Note that on at least one of the attempts, the snap bounced to the holder, who barely got it down in time. This is not all on Cantele.

Forget about the interceptions. Forget about the fumbles. Those things happen against a team like Auburn. Focus on what happened when K-State put itself in position to succeed. Just by simple probability, K-State left 13 points on the board. In other words, if K-State plays not even a perfect game, but a statistically probable game, the Wildcats win, 27-20.*

*We would do well to note that Auburn did not play a perfect game, either. Duke Williams dropped what probably would have been a touchdown pass, for one.

But they didn't. And that happens in college football sometimes. You can outplay your opponent on defense, put yourself in position to succeed on offense, blow a few opportunities, and all of a sudden, you've lost a crucial game.

For K-State fans, this is a reminder that, while this team is talented, it's not of the caliber to beat the elite teams in the country on a consistent basis. K-State didn't need a flawless game to beat Auburn, but it needed better than it got.

For the rest of the country, the game was a reminder that a well-coached, disciplined defense can match up against one of the better offenses in the country, "overall talent" be damned. K-State showed last night that Big 12 teams can play some defense.