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Observations on K-State’s Offense

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K-State averaged 4.0 yards per play and completed 33 percent of its passes against West Virginia. Disaster, right? Maybe not.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve had no shortage of discussion stemming from K-State’s 17-16 loss at West Virginia on Saturday. A loss after leading 13-0 in the second half of a game that is the difference between serious conference contention and also-ran status will do that.

Most of this discussion has focused on K-State’s offense. Understandably so. The Wildcat defense was excellent, holding West Virginia 10 percent below its season completion percentage and almost two yards below its yards-per-pass-attempt numbers. The ‘Eers rushing attack, which I pegged as “nothing special”* in the game preview, managed only 4.3 yards per carry. Normally prolific, West Virginia scored only 17 points.

*Much to the consternation of West Virginia’s online fans.

Rehashing the stats from K-State’s offensive performance seems unnecessarily cruel, but we’ll hit the high points. Jesse Ertz completed only a third of his passes. Accounting for sacks, K-State rushed for only 3.6 yards per carry. Plays were changed, timeouts were burned, garments were rent.

I won’t attempt to quantify the breadth of dissatisfaction among K-State fans, but as frustrating as this loss was, I didn’t come away from it thinking the offense is hopeless. Hear me out.

In modern football, completing only a third of your passes is a disaster. It takes a 54.4 completion percentage just to crack the top 100 nationally. But despite this inefficiency, K-State still generated five scoring opportunities in 12 drives. Great? No. But we’ll add context as we go.

Despite passing for zero yards two out of every three attempts, Ertz average 5.5 yards per pass attempt. He didn’t hit often, but when he hit, he hit big. Only two of Ertz’s 10 completions went for less than 10 yards. This isn’t conducive to moving the ball consistently, but chunk plays are valuable for creating scoring opportunities.

This is also a result of West Virginia’s aggressive defensive approach. The Mountaineers basically drop eight into coverage or bring a cover-zero blitz. They force the ball out quickly. With a quarterback more than four starts into his career, that may have backfired on the ‘Eers. But the Wildcats couldn’t consistently make WVU pay for its aggression.

From what I saw, Ertz diagnosed the blitz and identified his isolated receiver almost every single time. These receivers also ran downfield routes in each instance I noticed. Win a one-on-one battle in this situation, and the result is a big play or a score if the pass is on the mark. Lose the battle with the defensive back, and either it’s incomplete or picked.

Some have complained that Ertz overthrew a lot of passes, and that’s true. But in the case of downfield throws into isolated coverage against a zero blitz, they generally weren’t overthrown because of the pressure. They were overthrown because our receivers didn’t win one-on-one battles and Ertz effectively threw the ball away or the receiver couldn’t beat his defender to the spot.

This may be something that’s coached, or it may be that it’s easier for a first-year quarterback to identify isolation coverage and throw the ball up for grabs. Maybe we thought our wide receivers could beat WVU’s defensive backs in isolation. Whatever the case, zero blitzes force the ball out quickly, but also nearly guarantee an opening somewhere. On at least two instances, I noticed open receivers underneath that we could have hit for solid gains, and big plays if they broke a tackle.

It’s easy to see these things when rewinding a play several times and looking at different parts of the field. It’s less so when you’re facing down six or seven defenders charging into the backfield. Perhaps with coaching or repetitions, Ertz will be able to find open receivers short for easy completions against the blitz. Or maybe we’ll play some teams with defensive backs less talented than West Virginia’s.

Or maybe our quarterback and wide receivers aren’t as good as we thought. It’s possible, but I’m skeptical.

K-State also had no shortage of drops and quarterback misfires. Everyone noticed Byron Pringle’s drop in the end zone. Deante Burton should have caught a pass for a first down on the infamous 2nd and 2 situation that included two burned timeouts to call audibles that failed to gain the two yards for a first down. There may have been others.

And Ertz threw a few passes that weren’t catchable, but barely missed. Dominique Heath dove and got his fingertips on the ball on a quick slant that would have picked up the first down on the infamous 3rd and 2 mentioned above. Ertz, stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush, barely overthrew an open Burton down the sideline. There may have been others.

What’s the point? We’re not talking about a quarterback who patently can’t read defenses and throws a ball with nice zip but that could go anywhere. With his feet set, Ertz throws a nice, accurate ball. He also throws pretty well rolling out to his right. In fact, I didn’t see any head-scratching throws on Saturday.** A fair number of his misses were on throws where he recognized his receivers were blanketed by WVU’s eight defenders and threw the ball where nobody could catch it.

**ESPNU’s announcers were incredulous that Ertz missed Heath on a POP pass late in the game where Heath was “wide open.” Heath was wide open only if you ignore that West Virginia’s safety read the play and broke on it. Ertz threw it behind Heath to avoid an interception and a sack.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is fine and there’s nothing to worry about. K-State won’t win many games gaining 4.0 yards per play, rushing for 3.6 and passing for 5.5. But, and repeat after me if you’ve heard this before: K-State has a first-year quarterback, four first-year offensive linemen, and two first-year receivers. This was their fourth game. It was in Morgantown. West Virginia’s defense is aggressive and disruptive. And despite all this, they controlled the action for three quarters and, if almost anything else had gone right, would have won the game.

Maybe we got a little spoiled by the Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett years. Completing 64 percent of your passes for 9.1 yards per attempt over a two-year stretch will do that. Having a receiver who seemingly effortlessly takes the top off defenses and gets open underneath will do that. But there’s a reason Lockett was an NFL draft pick and Waters got a shot in camp.

And K-State doesn’t need that on offense to compete this year. If the defense continues to play at this level, then a merely competent offense will do enough to win most of the remaining games.

Maybe with repetitions, Ertz will lock in and stop missing some of these throws. Maybe we’ll find a higher-percentage counterpunch against aggressive blitzing teams. Maybe other opponents’ defensive backs aren’t as good as West Virginia’s and we’ll start hitting those passes down the field. If this happens, along with offensive line progress in run blocking, then this offense will be just fine.

It needs to start this week with Texas Tech’s porous defense. A road trip to Norman is a bad place to get right, especially on a two-game losing streak.