MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State’s defense expected to be among the best in the Big 12 heading into the season, and the past two weeks it had the perfect opportunities to make its case.
The Wildcats let them slip through their fingers.
On their trip to then-No. 20 Oklahoma State, they allowed a completion on fourth-and-8 with 2 minutes left to keep a drive alive. The Cowboys eventually kicked a 37-yard field goal to win the game, remaining unbeaten while dealing Kansas State its first loss.
Then last week against then-No. 2 TCU, the Wildcats kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 to tie the game deep in Horned Frogs territory. Bill Snyder sent his defense on the game to try to force overtime, only to watch Trevone Boykin complete a 55-yard TD pass two players.
“It’s extremely frustrating, but it’s also motivating for a lot of us,” Kansas State linebacker Will Davis said of the defensive collapses. “We want the game to be on our shoulders. We want to be able to provide that win. We haven’t been able to do that, and while that can hurt your mindset, at the same time a lot of the guys are hungry and motivated.”
They’ll have a chance to atone for their failures on Saturday against No. 19 Oklahoma (4-1, 1-1 Big 12).
One big reason Kansas State’s defense hasn’t come through with the game on the line has been its inability to combat big plays. In the past two weeks alone, the Wildcats (3-2, 0-2) have given up 14 plays of 20 or more yards, including eight in their 52-45 loss to TCU.
“We just have to be better at that,” Snyder said. “There are three plays in the ballgame for 210 yards and a total of 17 plays for 454 yards, I think, so there’s an average of somewhere in the vicinity of a 28 yards-per-snap average. You take all the rest of the plays and the average is about 2.8 yards per attempt, pass or run.”
Another reason for the struggles? A mix of youth and inexperience. Kansas State fielded two freshmen against the Horned Frogs, including Duke Shelley, who filled in for the injured Danzel McDaniel and became the first true freshman to start at cornerback for the Wildcats since 2006.
Six sophomores also saw action last Saturday, as well as junior Jesse Mack, who filled in late at cornerback and was burned on Boykin’s 55-yard pass to Josh Doctson with 1:10 remaining.
“It just makes it a little more difficult,” Snyder said. “But by the same token, I admire the young guys who step in. It just goes back to that old adage that everyone says: You’re a snap away, and it’s just a matter of how well you’ve prepared yourself.”
The Wildcats are banking on the growing pains paying dividends later, when the team returns standout safety Dante Barnett. He hasn’t played since the opener due to injury.
Already, the progression of underclassmen such as linebacker Elijah Lee and defensive tackle Will Geary has been encouraging. Lee intercepted Boykin twice on Saturday, the most picks by a Kansas State linebacker since 2002, while has 19 tackles in the trenches this season.
“We have a lot of potential in what we can do,” Lee said. “We’re just now breaking the hard surface, or at least trying to now. And now we just need to learn how to finish games.”
Between finishing games and limiting big plays, Kansas State’s emphasis is clear heading into a crucial game against the Sooners, who lost to Texas in similarly deflating fashion last week.
“It’s a matter of how well we prepare this week going into the game,” Davis said. “If we can put together four complete practices, we’ll put together a complete game.”