MANHATTAN — Kansas State’s defense was a mystery six weeks ago.
The Wildcats lost six starters and a coordinator from a 2011 unit that, while good enough to create turnovers and stop the run, had obvious flaws. It struggled against the pass and rarely put pressure on quarterbacks.
Could former secondary coach Tom Hayes bring improvement as the new defensive coordinator? Could defensive backs Randall Evans and Jarard Milo step in right away for David Garrett and Tysyn Hartman? Could Meshak Williams handle a full-time role at defensive end?
Five games later, Nigel Malone thinks those questions have been emphatically answered.
“We are a better defense all around,” said Malone, K-State’s senior cornerback.
No. 6 K-State certainly has the results. Its defense is giving up 15.6 points and no opponent has more than 21. It is once again strong against the run, ranking 20th nationally at 108.6 yards.
And though it is surrendering 252.8 passing yards, no one is getting beat deep. Opponents have picked up more than 20 yards 12 times and more than 40 yards twice. The longest touchdown was a 19-yard pass by Kansas.
The improvement has been noticeable up front and in the secondary.
“We might not be getting as many turnovers or interceptions, but that is an example of the defensive line getting a better pass rush,” Malone said. “The numbers might not always say so, but I think we are playing better on the back end, which is allowing the quarterback to hold the ball more and us getting more sacks.”
Behind Williams and Adam Davis, the Wildcats have 14 sacks. Their pressure was most evident during a win over Oklahoma. K-State’s defensive line pressured quarterback Landry Jones, forcing poor throws outside of the pocket. But they were also impressive against Kansas.
“It all just goes together,” Malone said. “Defense is a unity thing. Once one element of it is working, I kind of think that it makes everything else easier and falls into place for everyone else.”
The Jayhawks committed five turnovers. Two were fumbles forced with pressure. The three others were easy interceptions.
Unlike a year ago, when Malone took risks and jumped in front of passes on the outside for interceptions, K-State is using solid coverage to pick off passes this season. Cornerback Allen Chapman intercepted a pass in front of the goal line and Malone and Ty Zimmerman both caught passes that were tipped to them by Evans.
“A lot of our big plays have come from having great teammates,” Zimmerman said. “Randall Evans did a great job jumping in front of routes and tipping balls up in the air. Those are the kinds of plays we need.”
Malone thinks K-State players can fix problems such as tightening up zone coverage that often leaves large gaps over the middle and allowed Kansas to have early success throwing quick screen passes.
He also realizes that K-State coach Bill Snyder describes his defense as “a work in progress.”
In the Big 12, home to West Virginia and many of the nation’s top offenses, there is always more work to be done.
“The teams that we have left on the table probably average 100 points a game,” Snyder said. “We still have a lot ahead of us.”
But as long as the Wildcats keep stopping opponents in the 20 – opponents have scored 76 points in 20 red-zone trips – Malone thinks everything else will fall into place.
It has so far.
“We take pride in that, keeping the other team out of the end zone. It helps us win games,” Malone said. “Having that attitude that every time they get down there in the red zone they aren’t going to score. That’s the attitude we have. Nobody is going to score on us.”
Stiverson returns — Offensive lineman Boston Stiverson, from Andover Central, was healthy enough to play against Kansas, and Snyder expects him to play again on Saturday at Iowa State. The Wildcats’ current offensive line is playing so well he likely won’t start. But Snyder said he will see time in the rotation at several different positions.
Preparing for grass — Early weather forecasts are calling for thunderstorms in the Ames area on Saturday, and K-State is preparing for the elements. The Cyclones play on a grass field, so tight end Travis Tannahill said K-State will practice on grass fields this week to prepare.
No surprise at quarterback — Jared Barnett started his first game of the season last week against TCU and led Iowa State to victory. His style might have surprised the Horned Frogs after preparing for benched quarterback Steele Jantz, but he won’t sneak up on the Wildcats. He played against K-State last year and threw for 153 yards and a touchdown.
“He scrambled a couple times and brought the ball down and really hurt us,” Snyder said. “He is a good young quarterback. He understands the game well.”