This morning, the rumors began. By game time, they were confirmed. Malik Knowles wouldn’t be playing -- he wasn’t even in Stillwater, even -- because of a reported stress fracture in his foot.
It mattered a great deal. With no real threat at receiver, Oklahoma State Cowboys were able to bottle up Kansas State Wildcats ‘s running game and spoil what was actually a heroic effort on the part of K-State’s defenders as they posted a 26-13 win at T. Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. The 13-point victory marked the first time since 1988 that the Cowboys beat the Wildcats by more than 10 points.
The short version recap: K-State could not move the ball, Chuba Hubbard ran for 296 yards on 25 carries, Tylan Wallace caught eight balls for 145 yards, and despite all that K-State was still in the football game with seven minutes to play.
Skylar Thompson went 11-23 for 118 yards, with no touchdown passes and no interceptions. James Gilbert had 44 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, but he also had a critical fumble -- K-State’s first offensive turnover of the season. But the Cats were actually +1 in turnover margin on the night, as Darreyl Patterson and Elijah Sullivan each picked off Spencer Sanders, who went 16-25 for 153 yards with one touchdown pass.
The game was interrupted for an hour and fifteen minutes in the second quarter due to lightning near the stadium. As a result, the Wildcat defense got some very critical rest which would probably play into their performance, which was both good and bad. The Cats gave up 526 yards on 69 plays, which sounds bad. Well, it is bad, but there is a context to view this in which isn’t quite so terrible. The offense only managed 244 on 55 plays.
This week, it’s less about what we learned than what we observed:
1) You can’t blame the defense -- at least not the players.
Yes, K-State gave up 7.62 yards per snap. Of course, if you take away Oklahoma State’s four biggest plays -- only one of which ended in the end zone -- that drops to a mere 4.80, which is pretty good! The problem is that those four plays -- as well as a bunch of other scattered first downs for the Cowboys -- were all the direct result of K-State’s defense simply being outcoached, and you just can’t allow that many plays like that and hope to win.
There was a lot of talk on Twitter about the defense being tired and not having legs to catch Hubbard and Wallace, but that’s a bunch of fertilizer. The defense had 75 minutes to rest in the first half. Hubbard’s 84-yard touchdown run came on Oklahoma State’s very first snap of the second half. But if you were really watching, not just that play but Hubbard’s 53-yard run earlier in the game and his 40-yard run late in the game, Hubbard had nothing but grass to look at in front of him after stuttering once behind the line. That pattern repeated itself a half-dozen times tonight.
It’s vitally important to understand that this was not because the defense wasn’t doing their job. They were. Oklahoma State was not pushing the Wildcat front four off the line. They were directing them and releasing them to allow the hole to open for Hubbard, and the secondary was not where it needed to be. They were where they were supposed to be, which is the problem, because if where you’re supposed to be isn’t where you need to be you’re not making plays.
And that’s on the coaching staff.
Mind you, all was not terrible. The defense did hold Oklahoma State to two points per drive. But had they not been outcoached, they could have held them to a little over one. For all the talk of the offense failing tonight (and it failed, don’t get twisted here), the defense missed a bunch of chances to get themselves off the field through no fault of their own.
Scottie Hazleton will learn. This isn’t a panic situation. But he just got beaten tonight. The failures of the Wildcat defense were all on the dry-erase board; the players themselves were, as they have been all season, off the hook.
2) Malik Knowles needs to get better, fast.
As our own Luke Thompson pointed out to me during a discussion on this tonight, it’s not that Knowles has put up numbers which lead opponents to tremble in fear. But he HAS put up highlights which would certainly give an opposing defensive coordinator pause.
In his absence, Skylar Thompson was left without any credible threats to stretch the field and had trouble generating a passing game of any substance. That, in turn, allowed Oklahoma State to bottle up the box and destroy the Wildcat running game as well. Luke disagrees with me, but if Knowles had been healthy, maybe we can take a touchdown off the board for the Cowboys, and maybe we can add one for the good guys, and all of a sudden Gilbert’s touchdown makes it 20-16 K-State and Oklahoma State can’t kick that field goal with a minute left because they’ve got to try and punch it in... and that was a contest in which I’d have favored K-State’s defense, because they were nails in the red zone tonight.
Instead, we had a terrible offense, which was compounded by...
3) Somehow, K-State utterly failed to properly prepare for the 3-3-5.
Just as the defensive line wasn’t getting blown up by the Cowboy offensive line, K-State’s own linemen weren’t getting manhandled by Oklahoma State’s defense. The problem running the ball had nothing to do with the offensive line being beaten, and everything to do with Oklahoma State’s linebackers coming in to fill gaps. Proper assignments would have prevented that. Instead, K-State’s running backs kept running into bodies and couldn’t get into space.
There was a lot of chatter about how K-State should have kept running the ball. That was bad chatter. K-State averaged 3.9 yards per carry, and that’s only because Gilbert and Thompson busted big runs on the sole Wildcat touchdown drive all the way in the fourth quarter, and precisely neither of them were up the middle. Without those two carries, K-State ran for 88 yards on 30 carries, and I’m pretty sure you know that’s under three yards a tote.
Wait, they ran the ball 32 times? Yes. They did. And even when they tried to ram it down Oklahoma State’s throat, they got stuffed. So let’s put a lid on the “they should have run the ball more” talk.
Whereas the run blocking was fine in the abstract but flawed in the execution, the pass protection was actually very good. Thompson had all day to throw when he dropped back. He just couldn’t find anyone to throw it to.
So not only did the defense get outcoached, so did the offense. Ouch.
This, again, is a correctable problem. Speaking of correctable problems...
4) Special teams have been corrected.
No fumbles! Great punting by Devin Anctil (and a lot of them)! Blake Lynch was 2-2! Kickoffs went for touchbacks!
Nope. Can’t fault the special teams for this one.
5) We need to downgrade our expectations.
All the positives above aside, this team is not what we thought. We took way too much from a win over a team that just got clubbed like baby harp seals by Auburn Tigers. The hard thing for us to get used to is that for 25 years we’ve thought “Our players may not be as athletic as theirs, but we’re going to win with coaching.” What we’ve seen against K-State’s two opponents with pulses is that physically, K-State isn’t going to be pushed around, and while speed on offense may be lacking with Knowles sidelined, speed on defense is actually there. (Let’s not forget that on Hubbard’s 53- and 40-yard runs, he got caught.)
The coaching staff has adjustments to make. They’re smart guys, and we think they’re going to manage it. But this season may be painful as they work through the issues.
This is not a 10-2 team, no matter how much we wanted them to be two weeks ago. They may only be a 6-6 team. And that’s okay, this year. Even that is more than most people expected.