MANHATTAN (AP) — The most significant improvement in the Kansas State this season can't be found by scouring the stat sheet.
Sure, this year's unit ranks 17th in the country and stops opponents on third down nearly 70 percent of the time, but those numbers are merely manifestations of a larger change that has taken place since Bill Snyder came out of retirement for his second tenure as head coach.
"If you remember two years ago when we first got started, I was really concerned about the spirit of our football team," Snyder said. "Last year, I still had some — but not as much — concern about the spirit of our football team. Defensively, we have begun to express that spirit a little bit more."
The result is the first 5-0 start for the No. 17 Wildcats since 2000, and a lot of momentum heading into Saturday's game at Texas Tech.
Wide receiver Chris Harper knew the Wildcats had changed from the start of the first padded practice this fall. The offense was a little sluggish, but the defense came out fired up and that carried over to the rest of the team. Some of the best practices since then, Harper said, have been when the defense sets the tone for the rest of the team.
"They've always got some kind of energy," Harper said. "As far as bringing the spirit to this team, they're the catalyst for us. We kind of feed off of them."
Center B.J. Finney sees the camaraderie within the defense as a primary reason for the unit's success on the field. Players hang out together in the locker room. They crank up the energy level with chants before games. All of that inspires the offense to join in the fun.
That enjoyment translates directly to the field on Saturdays.
"Getting a huge stop just lets us know that the defense has our back," Finney said. "Now it's time to show them that we have theirs."
Through five games, the Wildcats have allowed only 13 touchdowns. They've held opponents to fewer than 300 yards per game and limited them to 24 minutes of possession. Both of those stats are among the best in the nation.
Snyder is always a little suspicious of numbers. But the Wildcats forced Missouri into three-and-out on four of 11 possessions last Saturday, the red zone defense has allowed only five touchdowns in five games an is stopping opponents from converting on third down at an incredible rate.
All of that is enough to please the veteran head coach.
Kansas State routinely had some of the best defenses in the country during Snyder's first tenure as coach, and he's the first to point out there is much work to be done if this year's unit wants to reach the same lofty level. But he also knows that this team is trying to define itself, and that preaching too much about the past takes some of the focus off the present.
That's why Snyder doesn't spend too much time talking about Kansas State history on defense. After all, many of the players aren't old enough to remember those teams.
"After a while, you get tired of hearing about the way it used to be," Snyder said. "You want to hear about how it is right now, so I'm a little more focused on that than I am past history. I think it's important for them to make their own history. That's what they'll remember in time."