'It's kind of a chess game': What Kansas State football's defense must do to get its mojo back

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman has several theories why the Wildcats' defense took a step backward the past two weeks in losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

Better competition, injuries and opponents catching up to their new three-man front were just a few. But when it comes to getting back on track, the answer is pretty simple.

"The biggest thing is getting back to some basics," Klieman said of the defense's priorities as the Wildcats (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) headed into this open week before playing host to Iowa State (3-2, 1-1) on Oct. 16. "Tackling and getting off blocks are the two biggest things, and letting the guys play faster."

And how do they get there?

"Some of that is us as coaches probably trying to do too much," Klieman said after watching the Wildcats surrender 873 yards over the past two weeks after holding nonconference opponents Stanford (233), Southern Illinois (276) and Nevada (331) to 840 combined. "We've talked about that as a defensive staff, of letting them play a little bit more like they did against Stanford, and then their bodies were fresher against Stanford and Southern (Illinois) and Nevada, but maybe not trying to be as perfect as just let them go out and play and execute our base rules and principles."

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Kansas State defensive back Russ Yeast (2) fights to bring down Oklahoma wide receiver Drake Stoops (12) in the second half of last Saturday's game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

In Saturday's 37-31 loss to Oklahoma, the Wildcats stopped the Sooners just once, with an interception. In their 31-20 loss at Oklahoma State the week before, they did not allow a point in the second half, but the Cowboys still amassed 481 yards total offense.

"We've just got to be better," said cornerback Julius Brents, who had the interception against Oklahoma. "We've got to look in the mirror and see what we can do to get out there as a team and individually. Just continue to work hard."

Klieman chalked up some of the success in the season-opening 24-7 victory against Stanford to catching the Cardinal off guard with a new-look defense. That's when the Wildcats unveiled their 3-3-5 look with just three down linemen while adding a third linebacker.

Six weeks in, are opposing offenses figuring some things out?

"A lot more teams in our league are doing it," Klieman said of the three-man front. "So the one thing that is unique is we haven't given up the explosive plays, which we did last year.

"We've given up less explosive plays, but probably too much in that 9-14 (yard) range where it's probably just, 'Why didn't we make that tackle? Why didn't we keep that cup? Why didn't we converge on the ball-carrier or converge on the receiver quicker?'"

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And of course there is now a greater body of work for opposing offenses to dissect.

"I think really, any offense can draw up plays to beat any defense," linebacker Ryan Henington said before the Oklahoma game. "People are going to make adjustments and so will we.

"That's why these coaches get paid a lot of money to do what they do. It's kind of a chess game for them to make adjustments in accordance with the offense, and who can make the on-field adjustments and who can make the adjustments during the game will allow us to have the most success."

Although they have lined up in their traditional four-man front from time to time this year, the Wildcats were limited against Oklahoma. They already lost defensive end Khalid Duke with a season-ending injury, and fellow defensive end Bronson Massie went down in the Oklahoma game and is expected to miss two or three weeks.

"The other thing was the tempo with which OU was just getting lined up," Klieman said. "Maybe not snapping the ball, but not subbing as much as some teams do and just getting lined up really quickly."

Sophomore defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who leads the Wildcats with five sacks, also tweaked his knee in practice before the Oklahoma game, but said afterward that he's good to go heading into the bye week.

"We just didn't tackle right," Anudike-Uzomah said after making four stops with a sack against the Sooners. "We've got to stick to our techniques we did during practice.

"During the game, we just froze and didn't tackle how we used to. So we've just got to fix that this upcoming game."

That's easier said than done, Klieman said. Because of the injury risks, teams seldom tackle to the ground during practice anymore, using dummies and form tackling instead.

"It's the lost art in football that typically the team that tackles best in even games is the team that's going to win," Klieman said. "But bottom line, we have to play faster, and sometimes you can kind of paralyze your mind by having too (many) thoughts going in there.

"But we also have to get off blocks and tackle better."