Since his arrival in 1989, Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder has overseen a number of defensive changes. He has watched coordinators and players come and go. Schemes have tried to stop everything from the I-formation to the Air Raid.
Still, one thing has stayed the same: The Wildcats are best when they stuff the run.
The 1999 defense, which allowed 144 points, held teams to 111 rushing yards per game. The 1995 unit, which allowed 145 points, limited teams to 114 yards. And the 2002 defense, which had three shutouts, surrendered 69.5 rushing yards.
It’s too early to tell if K-State’s current defense can live up to its predecessors, but it appears on its way. Through three games, the Wildcats have allowed 302 rushing yards in 103 attempts, an average of 100.7 yards per game and 2.9 yards per rush. Those numbers rank 23rd nationally and show improvement compared to last year, when the Wildcats allowed 3.9 yards per rush.
“It’s just being ingrained in being where you are supposed to be,” Snyder said. “That takes a tremendous amount of discipline. As we have enhanced our discipline, we have become a better defensive football team across the board. We still have issues. There’s no doubt about that, but ... our guys in the front seven and out of our secondary have really done a great job of maintaining that discipline and being where they are supposed to be.”
K-State was at its best last week. Auburn, a team averaging 330 rushing yards with never fewer than 200 yards under second-year coach Gus Malzahn, was held to 128 by K-State.
“It’s just something that we focus on, stopping the run,” senior linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “Stop the scorer, stop the run are two things that we want to focus on. It just comes down to our coaching and preparation and guys just wanting to win. We take a lot of pride in it.”
That pride will be tested once again Saturday when Texas-El Paso visits K-State for an 11 a.m. kickoff. The Miners, of Conference USA, are one of the nation’s best rushing teams.
Sophomore running back Aaron Jones, who ranks second nationally with an average of 183 rushing yards, carries the load. He had 237 rushing yards in the opener at New Mexico and he is averaging 7.8 yards per carry through three games. In a narrow loss to Texas Tech, he bounced off three defenders and scored on a 9-yard run. UTEP may not have the overall talent to match K-State, but it is as strong as most power-conference teams up front and in the backfield.
“He’s a good downhill runner and he carries piles,” Snyder said of Jones. “You cannot arm tackle him. He won’t allow that to happen. He does not have great size (5-foot-10, 185 pounds), but he runs like a 215- to 220-pound running back. I admire that. Obviously, he’s been effective.”
K-State knows it won’t be easy to contain Jones. The Wildcats aren’t willing to provide any bulletin-board material after their effort against Auburn.
Neither is Jones or his UTEP teammates. They respect K-State’s defense too much for that.
“They are one of the best run defenses I have seen,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said by phone. “They are extremely well coached, they are stout and they do a great job with their gap responsibility. They shed blockers. They do a great job of keeping the offensive linemen off their linebackers, and their linebackers are productive in making tackles and tackles for loss. I don’t see any weaknesses.
“It is going to be an extreme challenge for us. They shut Auburn down, and Auburn is one of the nation’s best rushing teams. It was obvious Kansas State was the more physical unit up front.”
Added Jones: “I have faith in my offensive line and think we can have success, but we also know this is the best defensive line we will see all year. They get after it and play physical and only give up 100 yards per game. We will just have to get after it, too.”
K-State freshman linebacker Elijah Lee is glad to hear outsiders respect the Wildcats’ run defense. Though he has lots to learn about the intricacies of coordinator Tom Hayes’ system, he picked up on the core values the day he arrived on campus.
It’s the same as it has always been at K-State: stuff the run.
“They talk about run defense first,” said Lee, a Blue Springs High graduate. “You have to be able to stop the run to get them to pick up the ball and throw it in the air. That gives us more chances for a pass rush, sacks, interceptions and turnovers. That’s the goal right now. Play physical, play fast and everyone get to the ball.”