In 2011, KSU's improbable run to a 10-3 season was highlighted by an overlooked early victory over the RG3 Baylor Bears. This was before Robert Griffin III shredded quality Texas and Oklahoma defenses and catapulted himself to the top of the Heisman ballots, but it was a momentous game for the Big 12, both in heralding the return of Snyder-ball and establishing something of a rivalry between the two oft-overlooked programs.
Snyder's Wildcats followed that victory up with an impressive 2012 campaign in which they thoroughly dominated the conference's spread offenses through a combination of gritty defense and a QB-led running game.
However, the bitter Bears returned the favor, destroying KSU's BCS title hopes and undefeated run behind Lache Seastrunk's rise within their already lethal offense. Seastrunk dropped 185 yards on the Wildcats and allowed Baylor to outrush Snyder's crew 342-76. After their obliteration at the hands of the emergent Bears and subsequent Fiesta Bowl defeat against the nation's most famous spread O, the Oregon Ducks, Bill Snyder's team faced the possibility of slinking back into obscurity.
Heading into 2013, the rivals' fortunes were very much reversed. Kansas State is currently only 2-4 with an embarrassing early loss to FCS opponent North Dakota State and a roster utterly depleted after the 2012 team graduated nine starters on defense along with their offensive motor Collin "Optimus" Klein.
Meanwhile, Baylor is undefeated and surging through the league as the clear frontrunner in the wake of Texas' surprising Red River beatdown of Oklahoma.
To stop the 2013 Bears, Snyder had precious few advantages. The Wildcats were playing at home, and they returned all of their offensive linemen from the 2012 season. However, their Heisman finalist QB is gone, replaced by a "co-habitation" on the depth chart between featureback Daniel Sams and JUCO passer Jake Waters. Their NFL-drafted bruising fullback is also gone, replaced by the fifth brother of the Gronkowski family.
On defense, the KSU line is led by walk-on defensive end Ryan Mueller and supplemented by some two-star recruits and JUCO transfers along with a sole senior and three-star JUCO nose tackle.
The linebackers are staffed by another two former walk-ons, Jonathan Truman and Randall Evans, while Blake Slaughter mans the middle. Though not a walk-on, Slaughter embodies the Wildcat spirit as a player who was surpassed on the depth chart by star transfer Arthur Brown, and consequently took a late redshirt in order to help the Snyder family ease into the post-Brown era with a deferred senior season.
The secondary? Keyed by a four-year starter named Ty Zimmerman who stepped on campus as a two-star recruit. The rest of the secondary is similarly unaccredited.
Armed with this combination of overachievers, Snyder took on the question of "How the hell do you stop Baylor?" and applied the same answer he always gives: "We play like soldiers and wait for them to play like college students."
KSU yielded 35 points to a Baylor team that had previously not failed to score fewer than 69. You can hardly say that the Wildcats "stopped" Baylor; the Bears still managed over 30 points and 7.8 yards per play. On the other hand, given the resources available to Snyder, it's incredible that his team had the success it did.
In reality, Snyder-ball is already designed to overcome talent disparities while maximizing whatever talent they manage to bring to Manhattan. The Bears' spread, though particularly innovative and destructive, presents problems not unlike what KSU faces every weekend.
Much like NIck Saban's victory over Johnny Football, the plan Snyder and his Wildcats employed to, let's say "slow," the Bears was a total team concept. It began on offense:
Tactic #1 in the first semi-successful attempt to stop the Baylor offense: Hold onto the ball
Kansas State ran the ball 58 times against the Bears and accumulated 327 rushing yards. This, along with a plodding approach, allowed the Wildcats to hold the ball for 39:24 of the game clock, leaving under 21 minutes for the Bears to run their explosive offense.
So why don't other teams in the B12 emulate that strategy and play keep away from the up-tempo Bears? Most of them can't. Their playbook and offensive systems aren't designed to play ball control in that manner. They've largely adopted spread systems that are looking to score quickly and often, and with good reason. But being the contrarian has its benefits.
On a week to week basis, Big 12 defenses are not facing what they'll face against the Wildcats, which gives Snyder-ball a major advantage. What they face against KSU is a team that totally ignores traditional fears about the dangers of running your QB and is largely built around the NFL's Wildcat offense. That's right, the Wildcats use the Wildcat as a base offense.
Confused? Let's back up.
In 2010 Kansas State had a solid passing QB named Carson Coffman, a dynamic running back named Daniel Thomas, and an athletic young lad named Collin Klein. Against Texas that year, realizing that the Longhorn secondary and pass rush would likely overwhelm their middling passing game while the Texas run defense was potentially exploitable, KSU went full bore with the QB run game that Snyder had made famous long ago with names like Michael Bishop and Ell Roberson.
Alternating between Daniel Thomas and Klein as the triggerman, they unleashed a torrent of single wing-inspired offense, and both Thomas and Klein finished with over 100 yards on the ground.
With Thomas and Klein both long gone, the Wildcats are left with solid scat back John Hubert, dominant athlete Daniel Sams, and semi-mobile passer Jake Waters. Yet, when plugged into the Wildcat's "Wildcat" offense this is what you end up with:
This is perhaps the most basic part of the KSU run game but it is also one of the most difficult features to account for, the QB Lead Draw, possibly the best running play in existence. The defense has to account for the possibility of a pass, and the OL's initial backpedal suggests that this should be their first concern. It is not. Their concern is an athletic QB choosing a crease against a spread out defense with a lead blocker. A&M does tremendous damage with this concept, but KSU's version is perhaps even more insidious.
Daniel Sams only has enough arm talent to consistently hit screens or short passes, but that's enough for the defense to have to account for it. More importantly, he's 210 pounds, possess 4.4 speed, and has tremendous vision for cutback lanes. He's one of the best running backs in the conference.
But the real evil genius is that his backfield mate is fullback Glenn Gronkowski, a 6-3 234 pound wrecking ball lead blocker.
KSU alternates between running spread sets to space out opposing defenders or packing in extra blockers instead:
In this play we find Jake Waters at QB for the Wildcats, with Gronk still at fullback and a pair of tight ends on the field. Though Waters is not the runner Sams is, he keenly operates what is basically "Zone Stretch," only instead of the QB handing off to the running back, the running back is the lead blocker for the QB. Everything else about this classic play remains the same.
Let's bring Sams back onto the field for a few more concepts, yeah? That's what Kansas State did on the next play, and they ran QB Power:
Because the QB has become the featured runner, the arithmetic changes for the defense. How do you get enough players to the point of attack to stop the run when the QB becomes the battering ram rather than an observer? How do you get numbers to the point of attack for every concept that KSU has in their QB run game?
Big 12 defensive coordinators are designing their defenses and repping them in practice to be able to handle the vertical passing threats Baylor has mastered and everyone else emulates, or the precise quick games that the league's more experience QB's can wield. They aren't installing and practicing base defenses designed to stuff an offense like this and they certainly aren't recruiting for it. Instead, they have to tinker with what they are already doing.
When Waters is in the game, the KSU scheme opens up opportunities for him to consistently gain positive yardage, and when a player like Sams is in there's the possibility of hitting home runs on these concepts.
Waters ran 10 times for 43 yards in this game while Sams added another 199 yards on 30 carries.
They involve their running back as well, with the option:
That's your classic option with lead blocker and pitch man or your newer classic, the zone read:
The fullback arcs around the unblocked defensive end to forge a path for the QB if he keeps, but in this instance it's a hand off to Hubert.
A great deal will undoubtedly be made about the soft Baylor run defense, a glaring flaw in Briles' team for the last few years. But the same Oklahoma State defense which held Mississippi State to three points was also gashed by Daniel Sams for another 100 rushing yards.
Kansas State achieves ball control against the Bears or other foes because the Wildcats are committed to a diverse run game, one that is built to maximize the success of a good runner, whether he's a traditional running back or a dual-threat QB. Daniel Thomas ran for 1,500 yards in this system in 2010, Klein for 1,141 and 920 in 2011 and 2012. Sams is at 522 and counting for 2013.
Tactic #2 in the first semi-successful attempt to stop the Baylor offense: Stop the run, wait for mistakes
Many teams attempt to employ a "bend don't break" approach to defense, but few are able to achieve the same success as the Wildcats. Currently the Wildcats rank 30th in the nation in defensive S&P; in 2012, they finished 24th.
At this point, I feel compelled to remind the reader that Kansas State lost nine defensive starters from last year's team.
The Wildcats' version of "bend don't break" is a far truer reflection of the philosophy than what many other teams accomplish. They very rarely ever blitz and mostly sit back with three, or usually four, deep defenders. While they are technically a 4-3 defensive team they play nickel personnel perhaps as much as 90 percent of their snaps.
Where another defense might switch to dime personnel or a 3-3-5 look to counter four- or five-wide receiver formations, Kansas State remains in nickel. The result of this is that the same 11 players are on the field executing the same basic schemes in almost every practice and every game scenario. This is a big part of how you build a defense around not making mistakes.
Kansas State also plays soft coverage with both its safeties and cornerbacks:
The cornerbacks are a good eight yards off the ball while the safeties are at a depth of about 11 yards. At times, they'll drop the nickel back 8-10 yards as well. They are looking to keep the receivers in front of them, then break on the ball to either break up the pass or make a secure tackle.
Meanwhile the defensive line's play is geared around taking on blockers and protecting the linebackers. The nose tackle forces and stands up double teams, while the linebackers, stacked closely behind the line, quickly come downhill to the line of scrimmage.
The tight alignment of the linebackers is afforded in part by the consistent lateral speed of the Wildcat linebackers (clearly a trait they prioritize) and in part by the sturdy linemen who are rarely blown off the ball. How a line comprised of a sophomore walk-on, two former two star recruits, and a sole senior and three-star JUCO transfer is consistently so tough is beyond me. I can only speculate that errors in assignment or execution carries the penalty of twelve lashes in Manhattan.
In the clip above, the discipline of the KSU run front is demonstrated in defending Baylor's bread and butter: inside zone blocking. The blocking concept gives the Bears a double-team at the point of attack, and in this formation, they have a tight end leading through the hole as well. The nose tackle is driven backwards but occupies a double team that protects the linebackers. The weakside linebacker, Jonathan Truman (former walk-on), takes on the lead block by the tight end at the line of scrimmage, preventing the opening of any creases through which Lache Seastrunk can dart.
The discipline of the Wildcat's D is also on display in how the secondary converges on plays:
This Power-Read play is aiming to get Seastrunk on the edge, where his speed will shred a defense, while threatening the middle of the field with Bryce Petty's power if the defense surrenders a crease while pursuing Seastrunk.
Middle linebacker Blake Slaughter is fighting to maintain leverage against the receiver blocking him, while strong safety Ty Zimmerman flies down the field in run support and flushes Seastrunk into the force play of nickelback Randall Evans (another former walk-on).
Every player is moving in sync to form a closing wall around the runner. That's how you hold a Heisman candidate like Lache Seastrunk to 59 rushing yards. That, and holding onto the ball so long that he only gets 12 carries.
Stopping the Baylor run game from the 4-2 is critical to preventing both the Bears' hurry-up pace from murdering a team and their play-action concepts from blowing huge holes in the secondary. The interior of the Baylor offensive line goes 340-295-330, and handling double teams and down blocks from those massive players becomes impossible if their offense gets momentum and they engage in their hurry-up pace.
Tactic #3 in the first semi-successful attempt to stop the Baylor offense: Pounce on the mistakes
This is where Kansas State ultimately failed. Discipline is the name of the game for the Wildcats. Control the ball on offense with a running game designed to chip away yards and run clock, keep everything in front of you and leveraged on defense.
Baylor made its fair share of mistakes. The Bears botched a snap and fumbled in the clip above. Petty fumbled again later right into Mueller's hands. Kansas State blocked a punt, and both Reese and Goodley dropped key passes.
But this also happened:
A coverage bust by Kansas State immediately flips phenomenal field position for the Wildcats into seven points for Baylor. For the game, Baylor scored on plays of 93, 72, 54, and 21 yards. The first and third touchdowns were incidents in which Reese got behind KSU's coverage, and the 72-yarder by Antwan Goodley occurred when the team let him catch a slant at full speed.
The three featured players of the 2013 Baylor offense -- Lache Seastrunk, Antwan Goodley, and Tevin Reese -- are all players who can make you pay for mistakes of any severity, on any given play, with touchdowns. It was essential that the Wildcats consistently kept Reese in front of the coverage, but they were unable to do it, and Snyder-ball just barely failed.
We'll have to wait and see if another team on the schedule can play with the discipline on offense and defense to play keep away from Art Briles and consistently stay leveraged against his most monstrous unit yet. Don't bet on it.