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K-State’s two quarterbacks find way to make it work

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, at 9:41 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at 12:12 p.m.

Kansas State at Kansas

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence

Records: KSU 6-5, 4-4 Big 12; KU 3-8, 1-7

Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM; KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

TV: Fox Sports 1

Three things about K-State

1. The Wildcats have locked up their fourth straight bowl and they can clinch their fourth straight winning season with a victory against the Jayhawks.

2. K-State’s defense is coming off its worst game of the season. Playing for the first time without injured safety Ty Zimmerman, it allowed 472 yards and 41 points to Oklahoma last week. The Sooners did most of their damage on the ground, rushing for 301 yards.

3. Tyler Lockett is the hottest receiver in the Big 12, if not the nation. The junior caught 12 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma. He has 1,103 receiving yards this season, despite missing the majority of two games with a hamstring injury.

Three things about Kansas

1. Junior punter Trevor Pardula has perhaps been KU’s MVP; he’s averaging 44.0 yards per punt, 13th-most in NCAA Division I.

2. Kansas safety Isaiah Johnson and offensive lineman Mike Smithburg were teammates of K-State quarterback Jake Waters last season at Iowa Western Community College.

3. Senior RB James Sims, who has rushed for a career-high 1,028 yards, is one of 13 players to run for 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons.

Key matchup: K-State’s secondary vs. James Sims. A week ago, Oklahoma used spread formations to keep the Wildcats’ defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage and then took advantage of running lanes in the middle with Brennan Clay rushing for 200 yards. Though Kansas can’t match Oklahoma’s offensive line, it may try and run a similar offense. K-State’s secondary needs to be ready to help its front seven.

Kellis Robinett’s pick: K-State, 45-21

Bill Snyder owns this rivalry, and that won’t change this weekend. The Wildcats have too much offense to be challenged for more than a half.

Rustin Dodd's pick: K-State, 34-19

K-State averaged 58 points in its last three victories over KU. The Jayhawks’ defense should perform better on Saturday, but KU just doesn’t have enough offense to compete.

— Only one thing mattered to Daniel Sams during the final moments of a discouraging loss to Oklahoma last week.

He had to find Jake Waters.

It had been a long day for both of Kansas State’s quarterbacks. Sams, a sophomore, barely played despite entering the game as the team’s leading rusher. Waters, a junior, made some impressive throws while taking nearly every snap, but he also lost two critical interceptions.

It would have been easy — heck, maybe even understandable — for Sams to have blamed the loss on Waters or K-State’s coaching staff. The Wildcats rushed for a mere 24 yards, and his absence didn’t help. But those thoughts never entered his mind. Sams took the selfish path early in the season, pouting alone while Waters failed to lead a comeback against Texas, and that didn’t do any good. K-State went on to lose three in a row. This time, he vowed to put the team first.

So when he found Waters on a crowded sideline, he put his right arm around him and said, “Don’t worry about it. We are going to get better from this.”

“He is always there for me,” Waters said later. “I love him to death. That meant a lot to me. He wanted to play more, obviously, but for him to comfort me at that time, it meant a lot.”

It was also a sign that the Wildcats’ two-quarterback system is here to stay. Most teams avoid using multiple quarterbacks, and K-State coach Bill Snyder admits he would rather not rotate players at the game’s most important position. But here he is nearing the end of a season in which he has used Sams and Waters in every game.

He thinks they complement each other. Sams is a gifted runner, a natural leader and one of the top athletes on the roster. Waters is a pure passer capable of stretching the field and picking up yards with his feet. Their skills are so different that Snyder can design single plays or full drives for each of them.

The possibilities kept Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops guessing to the point he remarked, “It’s like they have two different offenses.”

In a way, the Wildcats do.

Sams and Waters have both done well in limited action. Waters has completed 128 of 212 passes for 2,038 yards and 13 touchdowns. Sams has rushed for 791 yards and 11 touchdowns. And they both have passer efficiency ratings above 153. In the Big 12, only Baylor’s Bryce Petty (194.1) has done better.

“It has worked reasonably well for us,” Snyder said of the two-quarterback system. “Both guys work hard, are good players and deserve the opportunity to play. That’s what has happened. A lot of people say when you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. I don’t think that is the case for us. We legitimately have two good quarterbacks.”

But that isn’t why Sams and Waters are able to co-exist at a position where playing time is rarely shared. Their personalities make that possible.

Against all odds, they have found a way to work together. They have learned to put their competition aside and focus on the team, even if it means subbing in and out the way running backs and receivers do. Sams tells Waters, “It’s your turn,” on the way out of games. Waters tells Sams, “Give us that spark,” whenever he comes in.

They act like tag-team wrestlers more than competing quarterbacks.

“That means a lot coming from Jake,” Sams said. “Obviously, I’m coming to take you out of the game. For him to say, ‘Give us that spark,’ it shows he is all about this team the same way I am. It’s little stuff like that that draws us together.”

They have also grown close off the field and consider each other great friends.

“That helps the team out a lot,” receiver Tyler Lockett said. “Since we’ve seen them grow together and not go head-to-head and clash, it’s taught us that we can trust both of them. We have confidence with whoever is in there.”

But make no mistake, it wasn’t always this easy. Waters and Sams competed for the starting job throughout preseason practices, and Sams was devastated when Waters won the job. Sams worked his way into playing time with a touchdown run against North Dakota State, but he used to hang his head and trudge off the field when Waters came in.

Waters wanted the job all to himself, too. He still admits that, deep down, every quarterback “wants to be the main guy.”

But, near the end of a 2-4 start, Waters and Sams decided to stop thinking that way. A few days after losing to Texas, Waters and Sams met in K-State’s film room and had a season-altering conversation.

It went like this:

Waters: “We have got to find a way to get both of us on the field.”

Sams: “You really feel that way?”

Waters: “You are too good an athlete to be on the sidelines.”

Sams: “We’ve got to forget about this competition between me and you. Let’s play for the team.”

“We made a pact with each other,” Waters recalls. “Whatever helps this team, we are all for it. We are going to put our egos aside. We kind of went from there.”

Added Sams: “It was tough at first, especially when we were losing and we were both thinking, if we weren’t switching back and forth we wouldn’t be going through this. But once we threw that competition away, we came a lot closer. That is when I felt the offense and the defense come together. When they saw how we were communicating at practice, that’s when I really felt like we were going places.”

K-State responded by playing Oklahoma State and Baylor, a pair of top-10 teams, close and then winning four straight to become bowl eligible. If it beats Kansas on Saturday in the regular-season finale, it will clinch a winning record.

The quarterback rotation that once seemed outlandish now feels normal.

“We don’t even look at it as a two-quarterback system anymore,” Sams said. “We look at it as a good offense that wins games.”

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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