MANHATTAN — In a league of high-powered offenses that love to air it out, Kansas State is a misfit.
The No. 7 Wildcats would prefer, in the words of Kansas coach Charlie Weis, to “ram it down your throat every single play.” But an improved passing game has allowed the Wildcats to be more balanced, and that’s made them even more difficult to stop than last season.
They’ve already thrown for 758 yards through four games, an increase of nearly 50 percent over last year, and quarterback Collin Klein is completing about 70 percent of his throws. So far, he’s connected on 15 plays of at least 20 yards, more than double this point last season.
“You have to spend so much time trying to stop (Klein) as a runner, it obviously exposes you in the pass game,” said Weis, whose job it will be on Saturday to find an answer when the Jayhawks visit the Wildcats for the first time in his tenure at Kansas.
“Sometimes they get some really easy money because you have to come up and stop him,” Weis said. “If you can’t stop him, you don’t have much of a chance to win the game.”
As long as Bill Snyder is at the helm, Kansas State isn’t likely to abandon its steady, clock-eating approach in favor of a full-on shootout mentality, the kind that resulted in West Virginia’s 70-63 basketball-like final score last Saturday over Baylor.
Still, it looks like the Wildcats’ goal of a more balanced offense is being realized.
Klein is integral to the system, but credit is also due the group of offensive linemen who have protected the Heisman Trophy hopeful well despite injury problems.
The Wildcats have been without right guard Boston Stiverson and left guard Nick Puetz most of the season. As a result, the lone returning starter is center B.J. Finney. Senior Cornelius Lucas, redshirt freshman Cody Whitehair, junior college transfer Tavon Rooks and junior Keenan Taylor have been counted on to pick up the slack.
“They work together so well,” Snyder said. “Pass protection, so much of it is communication prior to and after the snap of the football, being able to adjust to a variety of different things that can take place.”
Besides providing competent pass protection, the offensive line’s discipline is a major reason why Kansas State has been assessed just eight penalties for 66 yards over four games. The Wildcats are far and away the best in the Big 12 at avoiding yellow flags — the next team in line is Kansas, which has racked up 18 penalties for 129 yards.
Another boon to the passing game has been Klein’s chemistry with his pass catchers.
While the senior quarterback has worked extensively on his delivery since the summer, his most important reason for newfound success could be his relationships with those on the other end of his passes: wide receivers Tramaine Thompson, Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton and Chris Harper.
Snyder said the feel between quarterback and receiver, the comfort and familiarity that comes only with many repetitions, has developed between Klein and his teammates.
“It’s having that good understanding of who’s going to where and when and how they’re going to get there and when the ball’s going to get there,” Snyder said. “Having the capacity to not have to hold onto the ball too long with the uncertainty of where the receiver might be.”
As usual, Snyder isn’t satisfied with the current situation, even though the improving pass offense was a big reason for the Wildcats’ upset victory at then-No. 6 Oklahoma.
The Wildcats still rank last in the Big 12 in passing, right behind the Jayhawks, and four teams in the conference average more than 300 passing yards per game.
So comparatively speaking, the Wildcats’ passing game might not strike fear in the hearts of opponents. But that’s OK, because all it really needs is to provide a distraction from the potent rushing attack that carried Kansas State to 10 wins last season, and a 4-0 start this season.
“We still had a few issues,” Snyder said, “but by and large, that part is coming together a lot better, and I think that’s what helps.”