MANHATTAN — Kansas State replaced nine starters from a defense that was among the best in the Big 12 last year, including its entire defensive line, two linebackers and three defensive backs.
It only stands to reason that there’d be growing pains this season.
In the opener against North Dakota State, the Wildcats (3-4, 1-3) couldn’t stop the lower-division school from marching downfield in the closing minutes to score a touchdown that stunned the defending Big 12 champs and sent a ripple through college football.
Things didn’t go a whole lot better the next few weeks as the Wildcats tried to jell, but the past three games — narrow losses to Oklahoma State and fifth-ranked Baylor, and an impressive win over West Virginia — has brought a sense of optimism to the unit.
“Consistency is a part of it,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “A product of repetition and the discipline that it takes to be where you’re supposed to be time in and time out.”
Discipline and repetition — never getting too high or too low — is something that has become a hallmark of Kansas State under Snyder. The program routinely had some of the best defenses in the nation during the 1990s, and that was the case again a year ago.
But with stalwarts such as Arthur Brown gone to the NFL, it’s been a slow process of getting back to the same level of smash-mouth defense. The Wildcats shut down West Virginia in a 35-12 blitz last week, and will try to take another step against Iowa State (1-6, 0-4) on Saturday.
“I think we have made strides,” Snyder said. “I think the degree of toughness with which they play has been enhanced, not over just the last game-and-a-half, but over the course of the season; I think it has gradually moved in that direction.”
An uncharacteristic performance by the Wildcats’ offense led to five second-half turnovers against the Cowboys. Yet only nine points came from the miscues, and Kansas State — which led in the second half — was still in position to win the game down the stretch.
The fleet-footed and high-octane offense of Baylor came to town next, and Kansas State’s defense fared better than anybody against the Bears this season. Not only did it hold them to a season-low 35 points, it also allowed Kansas State to carry the lead into the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats weren’t able to finish, but it wasn’t entirely on the defense.
“It definitely gives our guys confidence that we’re playing one of the best offensive teams,” junior defensive end Ryan Mueller said. “And it boosts our confidence that we can stop some of the most prolific players in the game right now.”
Just about the only negative on the defensive side of the ball against the Bears was the big play — they had a 93-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, another 72-yard scoring pass just before halftime, a go-ahead 54-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and a 21-yard touchdown run in the closing seconds to wrap up the 35-25 victory.
“I think they’ve gotten increasingly better,” said Snyder, offering up the same assessment that he does for his team on a regular basis. “They’re still a distance away from where they have to be in order for us to have any continued success. But the numbers have gotten better.”
Red zone defense continues to be an important building block.
Kansas State ranks sixth in the conference, allowing opponents points on 21 of 25 trips inside the 20, but eight of the scores have been field goals. Of the 21 successful attempts, just under half of the scoring drives began inside Wildcat territory.
“I do applaud our defense when they are in that position,” Snyder said. “They’ve done a pretty good job to defend the goal line reasonably well.”
The Wildcats are starting a finishing kick that includes games against ranked teams in Texas Tech and Oklahoma, along with TCU and Kansas. But first up is Iowa State, a game that could get the Wildcats back to .500 and within sight of a bowl game.
“We’ve got plenty of guys and plenty of talent, or else they wouldn’t be here on this level,” Mueller said. “I believe in my guys here and I know we’ve got the talent to win and to beat good teams and to be competitive in this conference.”