MANHATTAN — When it comes to neutralizing West Virginia’s vaunted passing attack, Dalton Risner doesn’t beat around the bush.
The way he sees it, the best defense is a good, well-grounded offense.
“The key to winning this football game is going in there and playing Kansas State football, and on the offensive side of the ball that is dominating (time of possession),” Risner, the Wildcats’ all-Big 12 right tackle, said of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. conference opener at No. 12-ranked West Virginia. “They’ve got a great offense, and if we keep their offense on the field, that’s going to be tough on our defense.”
It’s a time-tested approach that has worked well for K-State throughout Bill Snyder’s 27-year coaching tenure. Especially in the pass-happy Big 12 where rifle-armed quarterbacks have been the rule rather than the exception.
And nobody is more dangerous, currently, than West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, the Big 12 preseason pick as offensive player of the year.
“I feel like West Virginia can go against any defense in the country and put points up,” Risner said of the 2-0 Mountaineers, who rank 10th nationally in total offense with 586 yards per game and fifth in passing at 382.5. “Our job on the offense is we need to dominate the time of possession.
“How we do that is make sure that we’re effective in the run game, because if we’re not effective in the run game we’re going to become one-dimensional. We’re going to have to air it out and the clock’s going to stop a ton if you have incomplete passes.”
So there’s the rub.
With all five offensive linemen and the leading rusher back from a team that ranked second in the Big 12 and 32nd nationally in rushing last year, opposing defenses know what to look for. Especially when the passing game, ranked 107th, managed a paltry 173.8 yards a game.
As a result, the Wildcats have gone from nearly 200 yards per game on the ground last year to 177 and a No. 69 national ranking through the first three games this season.
“We were supposed to come in here and be able to run the ball,” said junior running back Alex Barnes, whose 51 carries for 228 yards lead the team. “That was supposed to be our namesake.
“We’re able to do it, just not as well as we want to do it, and that is definitely frustrating.”
But there was some good news for the offense last Saturday in a 41-17 victory over a Texas-San Antonio team hell-bent on stopping the run. Quarterback Skylar Thompson completed 13 of 18 passes to seven different receivers for 213 yards and two touchdowns, while backup Alex Delton’s lone attempt went 72 yards to Isaiah Zuber for another score.
If nothing else, it showed future opponents that they ignore the K-State passing game at their own peril.
“It will have a big impact because teams, all the time through my career here, have just absolutely loaded the box,” said senior receiver Zach Reuter, who caught a pair of passes for 45 yards against UTSA. “They’ve played man coverage.”
Barnes, who even caught a 30-yard pass himself out of the backfield, also liked what he saw in the UTSA game, even though he was limited to 50 yards rushing the Wildcats to 164 as a team.
“They had eight to nine guys in the box the entire game, (so) that’s why it was so difficult to run the ball,” he said. “But they were leaving Zuber one-on-one, (Dalton) Schoen one-on-one, Reuter one-on-one.
“If you’re going to leave us those matches, we’re going to take advantage of it. Being able to show we can do that is going to be really helpful for us.”
Snyder, who always has preached balance between the run and pass, said he’s less concerned about the actual numbers than the ability to be a threat with both.
“Our offense might promote (the run) a little bit more, but if they want to add the people in there then you’ve got to be able to throw the football and maybe that makes (the defense) a little more sensitive to doing it,” he said. “Now I don’t mind if they put them all up in there if we’re throwing the ball well — if we’re protecting well, throwing well (and) running routes well in man coverage.”
Risner fully expects West Virginia to test Thompson’s arm again on Saturday, but at least now the Mountaineers have something to think about.
“I think every game we play this year teams are going to load the box,” Risner said. “They know what we like to do, they know that we have capable running backs and a capable offensive line and they’re going to make us pass the ball.
“That’s what was huge for us last week, that we were able to do that. We gave (the quarterbacks) time, Skylar threw some great balls and wide receivers ran some great routes, so hopefully we can build off that and keep that going.”