MANHATTAN — There was a period during the late 1990s, back in Bill Snyder’s first tenure at Kansas State, when the Wildcats annually fielded one of the best defenses in the country.
There are signs that another stout defense is forming in the Flint Hills.
Heading into a high-profile game against sixth-ranked Oklahoma, the No. 15 Wildcats have already piled up eight sacks and 22 tackles for loss, an increase of nearly 50 percent over last season.
It’s not just one player who makes the Wildcats’ defense dangerous, either.
Meshak Williams, whose seven sacks tied him for sixth in the Big 12 last year, is back rushing quarterbacks. Linebacker Arthur Brown skipped the NFL draft to return for his senior season. Focus on either of them too long and you might miss Adam Davis, who already has three sacks this year, or Justin Tuggle, Ryan Mueller and John Sua, who have also gotten into the act.
The Wildcats haven’t had a player with at least 10 sacks in a season since Ian Campbell in 2006, but suddenly, there are a handful of guys who have shown that kind of potential.
“They’re very quick and technically sound,” Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson said. “Bill Snyder does a great job of coaching those guys and instilling that they’re a team that they’re not going to take a play off. I think their D-line and the linebackers are kind of their strong points.”
Johnson and the rest of the Sooners front line will certainly have their hands full. Oklahoma has already allowed seven sacks through two games after giving up 11 in 13 games all of last season.
Seven of those sacks came in their two losses — four by Baylor and three by Oklahoma State. The Wildcats didn’t get their paws on Landry Jones once in a 58-17 defeat in Manhattan, and the box score revealed just how much that hurt them. Jones threw for a school-record 505 yards, with 25 plays of at least 10 yards. More than half of his completions went for at least 15 yards, including seven that went for at least 20.
“You have to get pressure on him,” Snyder said. “We’ve been better the first couple of ball games than we were, perhaps, a year ago, but this is a level up.”
Kansas State’s secondary took the brunt of criticism last season, but the lack of a pass rush gave Jones plenty of time to find his targets down field. That defensive front appears to be vastly improved this season, and that could make life a little more difficult for Jones on Saturday.
“A sack is probably one of the biggest plays in football,” Kansas State wide receiver Curry Sexton said. “Obviously it’s just one more shot their quarterback takes, and it’s one more blow to their offensive line.”
Even if they don’t get to the quarterback, a pass rush from the defensive line — in theory — should force Jones to deliver the ball more quickly, and that could mean fewer big plays.
Still, that tactic runs the risk of an opponent beating you bit-by-bit.
“You can take the quick passes and keep them in front of you and slow the process down and down, but by the same token, that can always hurt you,” Snyder said, referring to last Saturday’s win over North Texas, which used a short passing game to keep possession more than 37 minutes.
“By being able to keep the ball in front, we also gave them the opportunity to move the chains, get first downs,” Snyder said, “so everything we’re talking about today is a dilemma.”
Roughing up Jones would go a long way toward resolving the issue. Taking down the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage would provide not just a confidence boost for the Wildcats, but also quiet what will surely be a raucous atmosphere at Owens Field.
The Kansas State defense knows how pivotal a sack can be, especially after viewing game film of some of their predecessors — including defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements, who played on some of the program’s better defenses earlier in Snyder’s tenure.
“All the guys in our film room were kind of shocked at how fast these guys were moving around, how aggressive they were,” Mueller said. “We were watching this like, ‘These guys are like crazy!’”
Crazy, but effective.
“We just thought to ourselves, ‘If we push ourselves, we can be these crazy guys on defense,’ ” Mueller said, “and make plays like they did.’ ”