Does K-State’s narrow win over KU portend disaster on the horizon? Or is it a symptom of a season that’s gone off the rails for a variety of relatively mundane reasons?
After most of K-State’s losses this season, I’ve spent most of Saturday and Sunday morose about the result. Then during the next week, I dug into the advanced stats and rewatched the game, and always came away more optimistic than I had been before.
I wasn’t expecting that after this Saturday. KU has been truly awful this season, and they played within a possession of K-State into the fourth quarter. But while I’m not going to tell you everything is fine, it’s not as bad as I was expecting.
So, about the defense…
On one hand, KU gained nearly 500 yards total offense and scored 20 points. That is, to put it mildly, a lot better than their last few games.
On the other hand, six plays accounted for 60 percent of those yards gained. KU gained only 64 yards rushing on 28 carries (2.3 yards/carry). That improves to 91 yards on 24 carries (3.8 yards/carry) with sacks removed. And the Jayhawks were miserable at finishing scoring-opportunity drives, averaging only 2.9 points per trip inside the 40.
Look, six busted pass coverages is too many, even if KU does have some individual skill talent and Doug Meacham is a good offensive coordinator. But putting aside those six big plays, KU’s 72 other snaps resulted in only 219 yards (3.0 yards/play).
Also notable, KU’s average starting field position on Saturday was its own 19-yard line. They had a lot of territory to pick up essentially meaningless yardage, or at least yardage that didn’t directly result in points. We can debate defensive philosophies, but for my money Tom Hayes’ match quarters scheme is fundamentally sound even if it’s not aesthetically pleasing.
Let’s take a look at some of the big-play busts.
KU faces second down and five yards to gain on its own 40-yard line, trailing 27-13 in the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks align in 00 personnel, with trips to the boundary and twins to the field. Steven Sims, Jr., who is by far KU’s best receiver this year, is in the slot to the field. Jayd Kirby has shallow-to-medium responsibility for him, with Denzel Goolsby supposedly helping out deep. DJ Reed is on an island against the outside receiver.
Inexplicably, Goolsby jogs up a couple steps right before the snap and is barely 10 yards off the line. Kirby drops into the medium zone and walls off any in-breaking routes, expecting to pass him off to Goolsby for deep responsibility. But he almost runs into Goolsby, who’s flat-footed and in no position to provide deep help. Sims runs right by them, Tanner Wood just barely misses a sack, and Stanley finds Sims for a touchdown.
You may not like bend-but-don’t-break defense. But don’t confuse structural schematic issues with player-execution errors. Goolsby inexplicably is not in position to cover Sims deep when providing safety against a deep threat is literally in the name of his position. Don’t confuse this as an indictment of Goolsby, who has the physical tools to play the position. Remember Dante Barnett’s first action? Baptism by fire is part of the deal for safeties in the Big 12.
KU has third down and 10 on its own 35-yard line in the first quarter. They are in 00 personnel with trips to the boundary. K-State has Elijah Sullivan in the game at linebacker to the boundary, with AJ Parker at nickel over the middle receiver, and Duke Shelley wide. Goolsby has safety help.
What happens next is kind of an epic disaster. The slot receiver switches with Tyler Patrick, the middle receiver, and runs a corner route. Patrick runs a fly route down the middle. The outside receiver occupies Shelley with a dig route.
Sullivan passes off the receivers for deep help, then looks for an in-breaking route, which keeps him from getting depth to cloud the deep-middle throwing lane. Goolsby chases the corner route that should have been Parker’s and Patrick is wide open. He is only caught by Kendall Adams, aligned at safety to the far side, and Parker hustling back.
This isn’t terribly dissimilar to the play Baylor used to get Denzel Mims a 70-yard touchdown catch. Against pattern-matching teams, switching route lanes can create confusion and lead to busts. The inexperience out there with Sullivan, Goolsby and Parker is going to permit some of that.
This isn’t a pass, but it’s worth watching for the assignment issues. KU has first down and 10 on its own 25-yard line, early in the third quarter. The Jayhawks line up in diamond formation. At the snap, Stanley reads Wood, who crashes down on the give. Stanley makes the correct read to pull the ball and takes off around end…
…where he should have run right into the waiting arms of Elijah Sullivan. But Sullivan misreads the pull, doesn’t set the edge, and Stanley is off for a 16-yard gain.
Be careful what you wish for in asking for the younger, more-athletic players to see the field. No amount of athleticism will save you from missed reads at this level, where being even one step out of position leads to positive yardage.
What Might Have Been
Remember how this game started? You probably don’t, given all the anger at what transpired. But on its first two drives, K-State drove into scoring position and came up empty both times. On its first drive, Alex Delton hit Byron Pringle for 28 yards to the KU 22-yard line, but Pringle fumbled and KU recovered.
On K-State’s second drive, the Wildcats moved the ball from their own 34-yard line to KU’s five-yard line in five plays and faced third down and one yard to go. The Cro-Magnon formation failed to gain a yard. Instead of trying again a play that probably has at least a 75 percent success rate, Dana Dimel went with a read option out of the pistol formation. The snap wasn’t great, the timing was off, and Delton couldn’t beat Mike Lee to the corner.
In between those two drives, DJ Reed returned a kickoff for a touchdown. If Pringle doesn’t fumble and Dimel doesn’t lose his mind on the fourth down call, K-State probably scores at least 10 and as many as 14 points. That’s how close the Wildcats were to leading 17-3 or 21-3 after the first quarter.
Injuries are piling up for K-State this year. It’s not as bad as 2015, because our backup quarterback isn’t Joe Hubener. But it’s also not ideal. So on the one hand, you can say “K-State only beat a historically awful KU team by 10.” Or you could say “K-State played its second- and third-string quarterback the entire game, inflicted a number of unforced errors on itself, and still won by two scores against a team that had nothing to lose.”
That doesn’t inspire confidence for a daunting stretch run in which K-State needs two wins to get bowl eligible, which isn’t an inspiring standard in and of itself. But if Delton or Ertz can get back on the field and the defense can clean up the busts we saw against KU, then I’m not ready to write them off. Again, this season has been a massive disappointment given preseason expectations, but I’m still not convinced anything is fundamentally broken.