Not even Bill Snyder saw this coming.
When the Kansas State football coach thinks back to the first game of the season, a 26-13 loss to Stanford in which K-State rushed for 92 yards, he describes the Wildcats’ offensive line as “a bunch of young pups who didn’t know left from right.” The odds of that group paving the way for an elite rushing attack seemed close to zero.
Yet, that is exactly what happened.
“I am very proud of our offensive line and the progress they have made throughout the course of the year,” Snyder said. “That’s one of those groups that have made very genuine and consistent improvement throughout the course of the year. You can’t run the ball well if your offensive line doesn’t execute as you hope that it would.
“Obviously, Jesse (Ertz) has had a big role in that, and certainly the running backs have done a nice job. In the last three ballgames or so, our running backs have really run explosively, and that has an impact on the running game as well. So it’s a combination of those things.”
K-State’s late-season surge can be traced back to the rise of its running game.
The Wildcats began the year without an offensive identity and produced mostly mediocre results while trying to throw the ball and establish a balanced attack. But that changed when K-State rushed for 234 yards and beat Texas to improve to 4-3. It found success on the ground and continued to effectively run the ball in its final five games, averaging 290.2 rushing yards and going 5-1 during the second half of the season.
K-State enters the Texas Bowl having rushed for at least 234 yards in six straight games and topping 300 yards in three of them.
Quarterback Jess Ertz eclipsed 100 yards three times during that span, running back Alex Barnes did it twice and Justin Silmon rushed for 133 yards and two touchdowns against TCU. The way K-State is rushing the ball, seemingly any runner is capable of a big day.
“We have so many backs that can do it, and we constantly have fresh backs in there,” Ertz said. “The offensive line is communicating and playing extremely well. Overall, we are hitting on all cylinders. We are really hard to stop in the run game. We have a lot of different schemes and a lot of different things we do.”
Ertz has been the focal point. The junior quarterback finished with 945 yards and 10 touchdowns on 159 carries. He was at his best during Big 12 games, where his 800 rushing yards ranks sixth in the conference.
But he got lots of help from Barnes, who came on late to rush for 129 yards and four touchdowns against Baylor and 103 yards and a score against Kansas. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry before missing the TCU game with an injury.
Not that it mattered. Silmon replaced him and looked every bit as good.
“Silmon was excellent,” Snyder said. “He ran explosively, which has kind of been the buy word for the last half of the season for him and Barnes. For Justin to step up and be able to do exactly the same thing, I didn’t think there was any difference between the two, is pretty special.”
All credit, Silmon said, goes to K-State’s front five.
Scott Frantz, Tyler Mitchell, Reid Najvar, Terrale Johnson and Dalton Risner began the year as giant question marks on the offensive line. Risner was the lone returning starter, and he switched positions from center to right tackle. They predictably struggled early, but excelled late.
“Our line is blocking really well,” Silmon said. “I don’t know if they get the credit they deserve. We just see the holes and run hard through them.”
When Snyder thinks about K-State’s offensive line now, he describes the group as a “shining example” of improvement that is “playing quite well.”
They have come a long way since the season began. So has K-State’s rushing attack.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett