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Kansas State Football: The Return of Malik

Malik didn’t have a huge game against Oklahoma, but having him back opens things up for the offense.

#4 Malik Knowles Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

“Where has that been this season?”

This question has come up often in the afterglow of the offensive explosion against Oklahoma.

“How can an offense look that bad against Baylor and Oklahoma State and that good against Oklahoma?”

Some of it can be explained away easily. Oklahoma was terrible on defense last Saturday. Kansas State punched them in the mouth, and they folded like a poorly constructed Boomer Schooner. The defensive shortcoming of the Sooners, however, don’t tell the entire story. On a team as thin as Kansas State, a couple players can make a huge difference.

That was the case on Saturday.

The return of Malik Knowles, Jordon Brown, and the emergence of Samuel Wheeler pushed the Wildcat offense (at least for one Saturday) out of neutral and into overdrive. The offense on the field against Oklahoma looked different from the offense on the field Oklahoma State and Baylor, because it was in effect, a different offense.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll break down the return of Malik, Jordon, and the emergence of Sammy in separate articles.

I’ll start with Malik.

Malik Knowles

Going into the season, I didn’t anticipate Malik being one of the most important piece of the Wildcat offense, but after watching the first seven games, it’s clear that he is a crucial part of the Wildcats offense. There isn’t anyone on the roster that fills the role of WR1 like Knowles.

Malik’s ability to play multiple wide receiver positions gives the coaching staff options, and allows Messingham to create match-ups and run combination routes that were not possible with him on the sideline.

When you look at the box score and see Knowles with two catches for 34 yards, you may not appreciate how important having him on the field is to the Wildcats. Even if he’s not targeted, he opens things up for other receivers.

Match Up Versatility

I’ll go through a few plays in a moment, but first I want to show the different ways Messingham deployed Knowles on Saturday.

Boundary Receiver

This is a standard 3 wide receiver set.

Boundary Receiver - Green Box - Malik Knowles

Slot Receiver - Blue Triangle - Wykeen Gill

Field Receiver - Red Circle - Dalton Schoen

As the boundary receiver, Knowles commands the attention of the boundary safety. He has the speed to threaten the back end of the defense, and that keeps the safety from crashing the line of scrimmage and clogging up running lanes.

Field Receiver

3 Wide with a Flexed Tight End

Boundary Receiver - Red Circle - Josh Youngblood

Flexed Tight End - Purple Triangle - Sammy Wheeler

Slot Receiver - Blue Triangle - Wykeen Gill

Field Receiver - Green Box - Malik Knowles

When Knowles lines up as the field wide receiver, something interesting happens. The slot receiver (Gill in this case) has more room to work.

Knowles In Combination Routes With Gill

3rd and 10 - Gill pick up first down.

This was a crucial play in the 2nd quarter. Oklahoma was looking to stick the dagger in K-State, but the Wildcats rallied and drove the ball down the field. It looked like the drive was going to stall in the red zone, but a Knowles/Gill Go-Out combination route saved the series, and potentially the game.

Oklahoma is in man coverage, and Messingham runs a combo route with Knowles and Gill. Malik (top of the screen) runs the go route to clear space for Gill to run a 10 yard out route underneath him. It’s Malik’s job to make sure his man, and any safety help (none came on this play as the OU safety was playing deep middle for some reason) is occupied. All Gill has to worry about is getting the proper depth and cutting hard to the outside to gain separation.

Skylar Thompson delivers the perfect pass (shout out to Jordon Brown for picking up the blitz) and Gill secures the catch past the line to gain. Solid play design and perfect execution.

4th and 6 - Gill picks up the 1st down.

I swear I’ve seen this exact play before.

Oh, wait, that’s right, it’s the exact same play I just showed y’all, except this time, instead of using it to pick up a red zone 3rd and 10, Messingham uses it to pick up a crucial 4th down.

This time, Oklahoma is in a 2 deep zone, but it doesn’t matter. Knowles is the field receiver with Gill next to him in the slot. Knowles runs the go route and clears out the underneath corner, while at the same time keeping the safety from jumping the out route. Gill runs a 7 yard out, Skylar delivers a perfect throw, and it’s a Wildcat 1st down (growwwwwwwwl).

Gill had two catches on Saturday, both for crucial 1st downs, and both on the same combination route with Knowles.

Malik Catching the Ball

Clearing out space is nice, but Knowles isn’t a prime time receiver because he can drag defenders with him on go routes. He’s a prime time receiver because he drags defenders that are trying to tackle him.

Catch #1

2nd and 10 - Knowles picks up the 1st down

This may have been the most important dive of the game for the Wildcats. Going 3 and out and giving Oklahoma a chance to go up 17 may have ended the game in the 1st quarter.

Gill and Knowles run matching slant routes. Gill’s slant draws the middle linebacker in the 2 deep zone, giving Malik one-on-one coverage. Skylar makes a decent throw (a little high) but the catch is made and the fun begins. Knowles takes on two defenders and fights for a first down. These are the little effort plays that make a huge difference. Instead of 3rd and 5 the Wildcats pick up a much needed 1st down.

Catch #2

2nd and 11 - Knowles picks up the 1st down

Malik had 2 catches on the day, and both came on the same drive. Needless to say, he’s less that 100% with a banged up foot and knee, but just being on the field opens things up for the Wildcat offense.

He’s the field receiver with Joshua Youngblood in the slot. Youngblood’s route occupies the middle linebacker. This is crucial because running in-cuts against cover 2 can lead to devastating hits from the middle linebacker if he’s not occupied. Malik makes his cut behind the dropping corner and in front of the closing safety. This is the sweet spot in the cover 2 as long as the linebacker is busy. Skylar makes a good throw (although slightly high again) and it’s another Wildcat 1st down on a crucial drive.


Malik didn’t have a huge receiving game against Oklahoma, but having him back on the field helped the other K-State receivers play to their full potential. He’s far from 100% right now, but he’s good enough to help the cause.