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Kansas State Football: A Matter of Trust

Or, how a “simple” 3rd down conversion showed growth of both the OC and the QB...and really the whole offense.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Hey folks, I’m on the road this week checking out Vegas and Los Angeles. but I couldn’t leave y’all high and dry after last weekends domination. We haven’t seen a massacre of Cowboys like this since Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and Doc met Billy Claiborne and the Clanton and McLaury brothers at the O.K. Corral in 1881.

You’ve seen all the explosive touchdown plays already. I want to focus on a 3rd and 2 play that shows the growth of the offense, and the growth of Collin Klein as a play caller. Regardless of who is playing quarterback, I’d like to see more of this moving forward.

Trust Your Guys To Win

Not going to lie guys, I have a special place in my heart for this play. Clemson used the same look to beat Alabama to death in the 2016 National Championship game. This play is all about trusting your outside receivers to win against man coverage in short yardage situations and your quarterback to deliver an accurate pass.

Stacked Box


This looks like a typical Kansas State short yardage play. The Wildcats are lined up in 12-personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends). Defenses treat K-State’s 12-personnel grouping like 22-personnel (2 running backs, 2 tight ends) because the Wildcats use their quarterback as an extra running back in short yardage.

Despite having the best running back in the nation, an experienced and often dominating offensive line, and a big hard running quarterback, this team has struggled to convert in short yardage. Teams stack the box, run blitz, fire linebackers into the backfield, and disrupt zone reads before they get started.

The counter to teams stacking the box in short yardage and run blitzing is to trust your receivers to win on the outside, and your quarterback to deliver the ball. That trust hasn’t always been present with this team.


This is a 9-man box with 0-coverage (no deep safety) and man coverage on the outside. Every player inside the run box (yellow box) is focused on Will Howard and Deuce Vaughn (red circle).

They want to create a wall of bodies on the inside, set a hard edge to prevent the play from bouncing outside, and stuff either the running back or the quarterback at or behind the line of scrimmage.


You have to trust your receivers to win on this play, because the obvious call on 3rd and 2 around midfield is quarterback power. We all know Collin Klein’s affinity for that play, and every defensive coordinator in the Big 12 knows his affinity for that play.

At the snap there are nine Cowboys with eyes on the quarterback and running back (yellow box). The key on this play are the two receivers outside the run box. Malik Knowles (purple circle) is in the slot, and Kade Warner (orange circle) is the field receiver. They’re looking at press man coverage (green box, blue box) with no safety help deep.

Warner is running a route that looks like a slant and go, and Knowles is running an out route to the sticks behind him.

Roll Out With Protection

Instead of using their 7 blockers (5 offensive linemen and 2 tight ends) to run block, they use them to max protect pass block. The defense is giving them man coverage on the outside, and Coach Klein trusts Warner and Knowles to win on the outside. The only thing that can short circuit this play is run blitzing linebacker shooting the gap and getting Howard to rush his throw. In order to keep this from happening, they put Will Howard on a sprint out right. This gets him away from any trash on the inside and gives him a clear throwing lane to deliver the pass.

Deuce Vaughn gets more attention from defense’s than any other player in the nation. On this play, his job is to escort Will Howard to the perimeter and make sure the safety is occupied. The threat of Vaughn (red circle) slipping out on this play keeps the safety from attacking the quarterback on the edge, he doesn’t even need to block him, his presence alone is enough to take the safety out of the play.

Timing is crucial on this play. Knowles (purple circle) starts a step behind Warner at the line, and waits for a beat after the snap before releasing. He needs Kade to lead the way in order for the natural “rub” (some may call it a pick, but they would be wrong, Warner is allowed to run a slant and go) on the slot corner to work. They time it up well.

Plausible Deniability

Some teams run this with a slant, instead of a slant and go. I like the slant and go because it provides a little more plausible deniability on the “run” route. When you just run the slant, the outside receiver (Warner in this case) runs directly into the slot corner. That often draws a flag.

With the slant and go, Warner starts with a slant but then turns it up field. I removed the circle from Kade because I want you to see that his route is heading up the field. He’s not running into the corner on the slant, he’s creating a natural “rub” while running straight up field. That’s never going to draw a flag for offensive pass interference.

You can see Knowles (purple circle) on step behind Warner. His out route is about to trap the slot corner on the wrong side of Kade.

Deuce (red circle) looks like he is going to slip out into the pattern, but you can see in this clip that he’s actually sealing the edge as a blocker for Will.

Play Design Success

Malik (purple circle) is out of his break, and showing Will his numbers. This is a much easier pass to make than a receiver running horizontal towards the sideline. Warner (orange circle) has created a traffic jam and help up the slot corner enough to give Knowles the step he needs.

At this point, the play is executed perfectly. The rub route has provided Knowles with the space he needs to get to the sticks. Plenty of plays are executed perfectly, but still fail to produce the wanted result. Klein called a play to get Malik open, now it’s time for Will Howard to cash in, that hasn’t always been a given during his career up until the last two games. This play shows the trust the staff has in Howard’s ability to deliver with his arm.

Perfect Delivery

Will shows his growth as a quarterback by getting the ball out of his hands early on this play. He doesn’t wait for Knowles, he lets the pass go and trusts Knowles to get to the right spot. In the past, Howard held onto the ball a second too long and gave the corner a chance to recover. Getting the ball out early, ensures the corner has no chance to get back into this play.

Also of note, there isn’t a Cowboy defender within 5 yards of Will because they are blocking 8 with 8 in max protect and Deuce has the extra box safety occupied on the perimeter.

Perfect Route

Malik is known for his work after the catch, but on this play, his work before the catch is outstanding. He runs his route two yards past the stick. This gives him the space he needs to come back and meet the ball instead of having to wait for it and give the defender a chance to get involved. If he runs this route to the 52, instead of the 53, it’s possible that the pass pulls him short of the first down.


This is how you want your receiver to attack the ball. This is fundamental in every sport that requires passing, but too often you see a receiver (or a small forward....or a midfielder...or a winger) let the ball get into their body, instead of cutting down the distance by attacking it with their hands (or feet, or stick). This seems like a little thing, but it can be the difference between a completion, a drop, or a pass break up.

It doesn’t matter as much on this play, because the corner is no where close to the play, but I commend Malik on doing things the right way every time, regardless of the defense.

First Down

Will delivers a nice ball and Malik pulls it in a yard past the sticks. First down Wildcats and the domination continues.


It blows my mind that K-State is 113th in the nation in 3rd down conversions. I attribute some of that futility on the offensive coaching staff insisting on running either Deuce or the quarterback (Martinez or Howard) into 8 and 9-man boxes, despite having man coverage on the outside.

This 3 yard completion may not have seemed like a big deal at the time, but for me, it showed the growth as Klein as a play caller and Will Howard as a quarterback. Adding a precise short passing game into the mix when teams sell out against the run on 3rd down will keep offense on the field, and could help the ‘Cats secure a spot in Arlington on December 3rd.

Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’m about to head go check out the Pacific Ocean.