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Midseason Report: What's wrong with K-State?

After a three-game losing streak, K-State is 3-3 at the midway point of the season. TB assesses the situation.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

We've reached midseason in Manhattan. Let's take stock.

The Kansas State Wildcats entered 2015 projected to finish seventh in the Big 12. A bowl team and little more, maybe 7-5 plus or minus a win. An easy non-conference slate, brutal start to Big 12 play, and a chance at some wins in November.

The Wildcats touted a stout defensive front, an exciting young linebacker, and tons of experience in the defensive backfield. Maybe one of the Big 12's best overall units. Questions abounded on offense, with a new quarterback and the loss of an NFL wide receiver and a second-team all-conference wide receiver.

K-State got its 3-0 start, but at a cost. Starting quarterback Jesse Ertz was injured on the first play from scrimmage, out for the year with a knee injury. Ertz was a three-star recruit who threw for 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns his junior year at Mediapolis High School in Iowa. He wasn't as heralded a prospect as his predecessor, fellow Iowan and junior-college OPOY Jake Waters, who set K-State passing records. But he was the best of the lot at the spring game and projected to give K-State enough passing acumen to balance the offense.

Instead, he was gone before he got started. Into his place stepped former walk-on Joe Hubener. A five-star try-hard in the best sense of the phrase, Hubener sports a strong arm, enough running ability to be a constraint on defenses, and below 50 percent passing accuracy.

Even worse, third-string quarterback Alex Delton was injured against UTSA, and is also possibly out for the season. Presumptive fourth-string quarterback Jonathan Banks has mono. Hubener is all that stands between K-State and playing quarterbacks even further down the initial depth chart, whose limitations we've yet to see.

Let's backtrack.

Daniel Sams is completing his senior year at McNeese State this season. Had he remained in Manhattan, he could have been a slash weapon on last year's team and taken over at quarterback for his senior year. That was the plan. Sams leads the program his senior year while Ertz and Delton learn the offense and prepare for 2016 and 2017. The walk-ons round out the squad, but never see the field.*

*Tay Bender also transferred. And Aaron Sharp decommitted late in the recruiting process. Make of that what you will.

Instead Hubener is the starter against Big 12 defenses. His non-conference numbers were decent, completing a little better than 50 percent of his passes for better than eight yards per attempt. Against smaller, slower secondaries, his receivers found more running room and the windows were bigger.

But the non-conference season isn't what we're interested in talking about. Three straight losses to start conference play have occupied our time. Let's examine some of the specific causes of these three losses.

Injuries

They happen. But not usually to the extent experienced by K-State this season. Here's a quick look at the positions hit hardest thus far:

Depth Chart - Offense

QB: Jesse Ertz, Joe Hubener OR Alex Delton, Jonathan Banks

Depth Chart - Defense

CB: Morgan Burns, Ryan Mack

SS: Dante Barnett, Kendall Adams

FS: Kaleb Prewett, Sean Newlan

CB: Danzel McDaniel, Cre Moore

Let's look back and 2011 and imagine the depth chart if this had happened then.

QB: Collin Klein, Sammuel Lamur, Justin Tuggle, Daniel Sams

CB: David Garrett, Kip Daily

SS: Ty Zimmerman, Thomas Ferguson

FS: Tysyn Hartman, Matthew Pearson

CB: Nigel Malone, Allen Chapman

Think that team wins 10 games? I don't.

Game Plan and Play Calling

Bill Snyder, Dana Dimel and Del Miller have won championships at K-State. They won one as recently as 2012. They don't get every call or game plan right, which isn't the standard anyway. People who know football and don't wear purple on Saturdays consider Snyder one of the finest pure football minds, and best program managers, in the history of the game. Read Barking Carnival if you don't believe me.

Let's take a look at some specifics from the conference games.

OSU

First, the last-second loss to Oklahoma State, a team that's still undefeated. In Stillwater. In that game, Hubener was injured on the first drive of the game. Expected backup Jonathan Banks was in Manhattan with mono. So wide receiver Kody Cook came in to play quarterback.

Most fans expect to lose by 50 when they have a wide receiver playing quarterback. K-State fans, accustomed to Bill Snyder and his staff's ability to prepare players and provide a tactical advantage, assumed a competent performance could be willed from a well-prepared and attentive young man.

For a while, it was. Cook led K-State to four first-half touchdowns. He was ready to play when needed. K-State also benefited from some baffling defensive alignments from Oklahoma State.

In this play, K-State has first and 10 in Oklahoma State territory. The Wildcats are in a heavy formation, 21 personnel with both Glenn Gronkowski and Winston Dimel in the backfield and a tight end right. Inexplicably, Oklahoma State has only seven defenders at the line of scrimmage. They're at even numbers if it's a handoff, and they're outnumbered if K-State uses the quarterback run game.

Cook gains six yards on quarterback lead.

Let's jump ahead to the second half.

K-State has first and 10 at its own 30 and lines up in 11 personnel with trips left.OSU is in a seven-man front, so the only way K-State can account for everyone is with the quarterback run game. The Cowboys have learned their lesson and aren't going to let Cook pick up easy yardage on first down. K-State throws downfield, an attempt to make OSU pay for the loaded front. But the pass is a little high and Kyle Klein can't haul it in.

Hitting on a few early throws could have loosened up the OSU defense. But they didn't and thus gave OSU no incentive to change tactics. Later, K-State has first and 10 in its own territory. The Wildcats are in 11 personnel, while OSU walks its nickel down to the box right before the snap, anticipating run and leaving the strong safety in man coverage. Good call, he reads the run immediately, sets the edge, and Justin Silmon is dropped for a one-yard gain.

Now K-State has missed on early throws, and the Cowboys are expecting run and don't fear getting beat by a wide receiver/quarterback and depleted group of receivers. K-State badly needs positive yardage for a manageable third-down distance. This time, they spread out in four-wide to try and gain a numbers advantage in the box.

It doesn't work. Oklahoma State has numbers unless we use the quarterback, and its corners are up in tight coverage and have eyes in the backfield to read and help on a run. Watch OSU's nickel toward the bottom of the screen. He's blitzing and takes away the cutback lane. OSU's linebackers read the action to the right and fill hard to force the action outside. Cook loses two yards.

TCU

In a game few expected would be especially competitive, K-State took a big lead to halftime against TCU. But TCU made adjustments, K-State was playing second- and third-string defensive backs across the board, and the Horned Frogs escaped with a win. Ian Boyd already broke down the film, so I won't duplicate effort there.

We'll save the fourth down and playcalling for later.

Oklahoma

K-State threw the ball on its first six offensive plays against Oklahoma. You may have heard that if you've read anything this week.

Why? Texas ran for 313 yards on 5.4 yards per carry the week before! Pound the ball and grind the Sooners into the dust!

Never mind that K-State isn't, and since 2003 hasn't, been a team built on ground dominance. The Wildcats thrive by finding and exploiting tendencies, weaknesses, and by keeping opponents off balance.

Here's K-State's first offensive play against Oklahoma. The Wildcats are in 20 personnel, matched by OU's seven-man front. Klein has leverage and size on the boundary cornerback. K-State picks up five easy yards off that matchup.

On the first play of K-State's second drive, the Wildcats show 11 personnel, again matched by OU's seven-man front. Deante Burton is the lone receiver to the right, and is outside the numbers. OU's free safety is inside the right hash. If Burton beats Zack Sanchez up the sideline, there won't be any help.

He does. There isn't. And Hubener overthrows him.

I talked with Allen Kenney a couple days ago. He called this one of those plays where you wonder if the entire game is different if it goes for a touchdown. When broadcasters say that, they're talking about such obviously important things as "momentum" and "morale."

Mostly, I wondered if it might get a defender out of the box.

Overall Assessment

Opposing defenses are asking questions K-State doesn't have good answers for right now. When opposing defenses show seven in the box against K-State's usual formations, there are three potential options:

  • Regain the advantage with the quarterback running game
  • Option a defender by reading them rather than blocking them
  • Pass

Option one is the easiest. And is usually a feature of K-State's offense. But Hubener is already the backup quarterback, and the third-string quarterback is hurt, and the fourth-string quarterback may still be out with mono. K-State's coaches have to balance the benefit of gaining numbers this way with the possibility of playing Cook or someone even further down the depth chart at quarterback for several games later in the season.

Using a read option to gain back the advantage is also something K-State uses in the running game. But the read option has been around long enough that defenses have adjusted to it. Ian went so far as to pronounce it dead (EDIT: Sort of) earlier this season. It's definitely dead as the feature play of an offense's running game, though it can still be effective as a restraint.

Ultimately, K-State is going to have to pass competently to loosen opposing defenses and regain balance. Playing a quarterback who's hitting 38 percent of his passes in conference play isn't going to get that done. It's a harsh governor, y'all.

The coaching staff isn't failing. They're like law students trying to answer a professor's questions about a case that wasn't assigned as reading material. Like any coaches, some of their decisions are questionable. Against TCU, even against numbers in the box, I would've defaulted to read options until TCU definitively stopped it. Running the ball would have kept the clock moving and, if mildly successful, could have set up play-action opportunities.

For that matter, I would have reduced the straight dropbacks and used play action more in the second-half passing game against TCU.

There's no argument on the field goal attempt on fourth and one against TCU. Kicking the field goal was the wrong decision. The odds of picking up one yard are very high. TCU couldn't stop the clock. And the benefit of picking up that first down were enormous. K-State could have bled the clock down to 30 seconds remaining by running three more plays. A touchdown wasn't guaranteed by a first down. But kicking a field goal guaranteed not scoring a touchdown.

The Rest of the Season

tried to warn you.

"Add it all up, and what do you have? A whole lot of average and a whole lot of inconsistency. They may put it together for stretches and make us wonder why they can't do that all the time. And maybe the coaches will find a marginal schematic advantage based on personnel. But good defenses will punish our many limitations, and the result will be a lot of low-scoring, frustrating games."

At some point, the Wildcats may have to commit to using the quarterback run game more often to even the numbers. There's a tipping point at which the need to acquire six wins outweighs the risk that you have to play a wide receiver or BlackCats at quarterback in the next game.

In any given game, rejoice if Hubener connects with a wide receiver for a long gain. Aside from the obvious yardage benefit, it's one more seed of doubt for the opposing defensive coordinator about loading the box.

And if there's something we can sacrifice to get the secondary healthy, round it up quick-like.