For a few years, the Kansas State Wildcats stuck out among the other Big 12 football teams.
As the other teams around the conference shifted to fast-paced, air-raid style offenses that focused on scoring as many points as quickly as possible, the Wildcats, under legendary coach Bill Snyder, stuck with an old-school, ground and pound mentality on offense. Under second-year coach Chris Klieman, K-State’s offensive approach is still decidedly run-first, but over time the Wildcats and the league have changed so that it does not stick out as much as it used to.
As its offense started to open up similarly to other Big 12 teams, however, Kansas State’s defense is now somewhat the outlier. Most Big 12 teams run some variation of the 3-3-5 defensive scheme popularized by Iowa State a few seasons ago. Kansas State, however, almost exclusively uses a four-man front without a lot of variation or movement.
“They play extremely hard, they know where to line up, they know what their assignments are and they all converge to the ball in a hurry. What better compliment is there than that?” WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said Tuesday. “It just reminds me of a good, solid Big 10 defense; hard-nosed, lineup for you, play a front that doesn’t change too much.”
Parker has had two stints coaching in the Big Ten, with Purdue from 2013-16 and last season with Penn State — so he knows a thing or two about what those defenses bring to the table.
“They know where they’re going to be, you know where they’re going to be and it’s still really hard to gain yards.”
The Wildcats have the fourth-best scoring defense in the conference, allowing just 23.8 points per game. KSU also ranks fourth in the Big 12 with 14 sacks and first with seven interceptions, two returned for touchdowns.
WVU football coach Neal Brown said K-State’s defense can do a lot of its damage without even needing to blitz.
“You’ve either got to keep guys in to protect where you have a chance to throw the ball downfield, so instead of having five guys out now you’ve got three or four and they’re still dropping seven,” Brown explained. “Or you get your guys out and they run things to get those [defensive ends] in one-on-one situations and the quarterback’s under pressure and he’s throwing the ball quicker than he wants to and that’s causing those interceptions.”
KSU’s defensive front is lead by junior defensive end Wyatt Hubert. An All-Big 12 First Team selection last season, Hubert leads his team with three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss this season. Defensive tackles Drew Wiley and Eli Huggins and end Bronson Massie all also have multiple sacks and tackles for loss this season.
Parker explained that playing against a zone defense is substantially different than playing against a man defense.
“The old adage from when I started to play [basketball] is, ‘you have to knife and attack man defenses and in zones you have gaps’,” Parker said. “I think it’s similar in football.”
Against zone, Parker said you have to coach players to attack patches of grass on the field, whereas with man you can attack the defenders.
“In a man game, you’re talking about a different approach where you attack it vertically and laterally and have to use different route combos to create some rubs and help,” Parker explained. “In zones, you’re talking about attacking and flooding different pieces of grass on the field and putting your guys in the opportunity to catch and knife the ball through those zones.”
WVU quarterback Jarret Doege has only thrown three interceptions this season, but Parker said he will have to be sharp Saturday in order to avoid mistakes. He said throwing interceptions against a zone defense can come from things as simple as holding onto the ball for too long or trying to make too tight of throws.
“Maybe we hold onto it a little too long and maybe shouldn’t have tried to force it into a zone window that closes up a little bit,” Parker said. “It creates a little bit of a look of ‘maybe there’s a window’. Usually, if you say ‘maybe there’s a window’, there’s not.”
Defensive backs Jahron McPhearson and Justin Gardner both have two interceptions this season. Gardner and AJ Parker have the Wildcats’ two pick-sixes.