In the span of three weeks, Kansas State football fans have gone from dreaming about contending for a Big 12 championship to wondering when the Wildcats will win their first conference game.
All the excitement and momentum new coach Chris Klieman created during an impressive 3-0 start that featured a victory at Mississippi State is gone.
The honeymoon is officially over.
K-State is no longer running over opponents on offense or stopping playmakers in their tracks on defense. The Wildcats have lost back-to-back conference games by double digits, and everyone is searching for answers following Saturday’s 31-12 loss to Baylor at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“It’s obviously just a little bit of a shock,” K-State defensive end Wyatt Hubert said. “I don’t feel like the entire team as a whole is playing up to its ability. I think we look like a completely different team this week and last week than we did against Mississippi State. I don’t know what is going on right now.”
The biggest questions are on offense.
K-State could certainly be better on defense, too, but Scottie Hazelton’s unit held Oklahoma State to 26 points and then Baylor to 31. That’s usually good enough to give the Wildcats a shot at victory in the high-octane Big 12.
But they will need to play much better in future games if they don’t start getting some help from their offensive counterparts.
K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson and his supporting cast have struggled mightily against those same opponents, scoring a grand total of 25 points in K-State’s first two conference games.
A sign of the times: Senior punter Devin Anctil has arguably been K-State’s most valuable player the past two weeks. He definitely out-shined everyone else in purple on Saturday by booting six punts for 245 yards and pinning the Bears in front of their end zone three different times.
The Wildcats weren’t nearly as efficient on offense.
Thompson has never thrown for more yardage (218) in a college football game than he did against Baylor. But he needed 34 attempts to reach that number and also threw his first interception of the season and had to run for his life far too often when he dropped back in the pocket.
He attempted 34 passes and got sacked six times. Baylor defenders practically lived in K-State’s backfield, finishing the game with a whopping 15 tackles for loss.
An experienced offensive line that features five senior starters was supposed to be a strength for K-State this season, but that was hardly the case against Baylor’s three-lineman formation. The Bears brought blitzes from unexpected angles and blew up several K-State plays before they could even get started.
The Bears were most successful against the run, holding the Wildcats to 123 rushing yards on 40 attempts, an average of 3.1 yards per run.
“People are starting to understand what we are doing,” running back James Gilbert said after rushing for 94 yards on 18 carries. “It all comes down to executing. (Offensive coordinator Courtney) Messingham is calling a good game plan. We just have to execute as players. I feel like last week the opportunities were there to make explosive plays. This week, same thing. We just have to make the plays when they are there.”
Under Messingham, the Wildcats are at their best when they run the ball effectively. Take that away, and K-State’s passing game struggles to move the chains, especially when the Wildcats are playing from behind like they have the past two weeks.
“We have still got to be able to run the football,” Klieman said. “That is what we have to be able to do. We can’t have Skylar back there throwing it 50 times a game. He threw it 34. We would rather have him in the 25-30 range. We have to be able to sustain some things running the football.”
It will be fascinating to see what type of adjustments the Wildcats make moving forward.
Getting Malik Knowles back healthy on a long-term basis would help. K-State’s top receiver started Saturday’s game but left after two series after he aggravated a foot injury. But this unit needs more help than that.
The Wildcats looked ill-prepared to block against Oklahoma State and Baylor. That allowed the Bears to use mostly man coverage against K-State’s receivers and still won most of those battles.
Dalton Schoen got open six times for 69 yards and a touchdown. Phillip Brooks caught seven passes for 69 yards. Those were positives. But the offense lacked explosion.
Baylor used big plays from Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed to sustain long touchdown drives of 91 and 98 yards, as well as clinch the game after K-State pulled to within 17-6 late in the third quarter.
K-State’s longest drive of the game was 67 yards. The Wildcats didn’t reach the end zone until the fourth quarter when they trailed 24-6.
They will need to play at a higher level in two weeks if they hope to stop their losing streak and beat TCU.
“We just really have to buckle down and focus on what we need to work on and our mistakes,” Thompson said. “We need to have a great couple weeks with this bye week. We really have to improve and just get better.”