MANHATTAN — The grin on Chris Harper’s face said it all.
As the Kansas State receiver stood outside Jack Trice Stadium last weekend, answering questions about the Wildcats’ victory over Iowa State, the conversation eventually turned to West Virginia and its high-powered offense. It has scored 70 points twice and none of quarterback Geno Smith’s 259 passes have been intercepted.
The No. 17 Mountaineers are coming off a 49-14 loss at Texas Tech, but they have looked unstoppable at home. Three weeks ago, Baylor shattered school records while scoring 63 points in Morgantown and still lost.
Those numbers can put pressure on any opposing offense going into Saturday’s game, but Harper doesn’t feel it.
“We’ve got a defense,” Harper said. “The way our defense plays, it doesn’t put pressure on us.”
Though K-State doesn’t rank at the top of the Big 12 in any statistical categories, it ranks third in rushing defense and scoring defense. Despite allowing 238.5 passing yards, its zone pass coverage tightens up around the goal line and rarely gives up touchdowns. The Wildcats haven’t allowed more than 21 points this season.
No matter what defensive stat you value most, that serves as a gigantic weight off Collin Klein and K-State’s offense. Going into every game, even one against West Virginia, it knows it doesn’t need a touchdown on every possession to win.
“It is nice to know that we have a solid D on the other end,” senior fullback Braden Wilson said. “They have been doing a tremendous job this year, so that is very helpful.”
K-State’s toughest game so far came at No. 10 Oklahoma. The Sooners picked on the Wildcats last year during a 58-17 victory, but K-State responded with a much more aggressive game plan that revolved around pressuring quarterback Landry Jones.
The Wildcats hurried Jones with blitzes and their standard pass rush. That pressure led to an interception and a defensive touchdown from a Jones fumble. The plan worked perfectly, giving up 19 points.
“It’s another great opportunity,” senior linebacker Arthur Brown said. “A great team like West Virginia, they have great athletes and great players. We just have to stay focused and go out there and really be who we are.”
But defending Smith will be a more difficult challenge.
Texas Tech provided a blueprint last week, holding Smith to 29 completions on 55 attempts. But Smith is difficult to rattle. He doesn’t turn the ball over and is considered by many to be the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy despite the big loss in Lubbock.
He’s seen blitzes, which have worked with some success. But Smith is a dual-threat quarterback, and can run for first downs when defenses over pursue. Others have tried to stop him by dropping all but three defenders into coverage — they failed. Tayvon Austin and Stedman Bailey are two of the best receivers in the country. Both have more than 750 yards and eight touchdowns.
Texas Tech achieved the best of both worlds last week by creating pressure with its front four, and covering receivers well with its standard defensive sets.
Snyder isn’t sure K-State can copy Texas Tech’s defensive strategy, and joked that the best way to prepare for the Mountaineers was by kidnapping their quarterback and top four receivers.
“You can’t replicate what they can do with their offense,” Snyder said.
They have more speed than K-State, and often score quickly on long pass plays. When they start having success, they are hard to stop. But behind safety Ty Zimmerman, who has intercepted a pass in three straight games, the Wildcats have done an excellent job of preventing long pass plays.
Keeping plays in front of them will once again be a priority for K-State defensive backs.
“The biggest thing is locking down those two receivers and just playing zone coverage against them,” linebacker Tre Walker said. “It’s really about manning down those receivers and making sure you take care of those. If you can knock them out of the play and get pressure on the quarterback, you will be just fine.”
An early lead would help, too. Last week, West Virginia became one-dimensional after it fell behind. If that happens again, K-State’s running attack could shorten the game and help its defense even more.
But if West Virginia jumps out to an early lead, K-State is prepared to fight back, too.
The Wildcats know it will take a balanced effort to beat the Mountaineers.
“We are definitely going to be ready to go out there and play,” Harper said. “If they happen to come out and score a little bit, hey, we can score, too. We’ve shown that we can score some points.”