MANHATTAN — Not long ago, Kansas State's run defense was considered a cornerstone of its successful football season.
The Wildcats were improved behind leading tackler Arthur Brown, vocal leader Tre Walker and defensive tackle Ray Kibble. They clogged running lanes and forced opponents to throw.
But K-State has faced three of the nation's top five passing teams in the past four weeks, and will see another capable throwing offense Saturday in Texas A&M.
The Aggies, 12th nationally at 304.6 passing yards, like to stay balanced and run with backs Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. But with Michael out for the year with a torn ACL, and K-State allowing more than 1,000 passing yards over consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, it's safe to assume A&M Ryan Tannehill will be asked to throw more than normal.
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"This team throws the football," K-State coach Bill Snyder said. "You cannot lose sight of that whatsoever. Tannehill is a mid-60 percent thrower with well over 2,000 yards throwing right now. So they're going to throw the football. We're not going to not see the pass.
"And the fact that we've given up (1,022) yards in the last two weeks passing, Texas A&M is watching the same tape that I'm watching. They're going to throw the ball. There's no doubt about that. My guess is they would still like to maintain their balance in their offense, but they're not going to bypass the pass just to run the football."
That means K-State will likely once again have to go away from the 4-3 defensive formation that began the season, take Walker off the field and use five defensive backs to keep up with receivers Ryan Swope and Jeff Fuller. Gray is also a receiving threat out of the backfield.
The Wildcats have found limited success with their nickel package. Added speed has created turnovers — seven combined interceptions against Texas Tech, OU and OSU — but it has not helped them consistently keep opponents out of the end zone.
Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden set personal records for passing yardage against K-State while putting up more than 50 points.
"Coming off two performances where the offenses kind of had their way, we've definitely put it on our shoulders to come out and play better," junior cornerback Nigel Malone said.
Cornerback Allen Chapman said there wasn't enough communication within the secondary against Oklahoma State. Safeties Tysyn Hartman and Ty Zimmerman were rarely able to help defend the middle of the field, leaving receivers open on crossing routes. But their mistakes were magnified by quarterbacks having time to throw.
"We can only guard people for so long," Chapman said.
K-State didn't sack Weeden a single time, and was only able to pressure him on a limited basis with blitzes. Not a good sign considering Texas A&M's offensive line is a strong pass-blocking unit and Tannehill has been sacked less than once a game.
Snyder thinks K-State's defensive line has made up for a lack of sacks with a handful of tipped passes at the line of scrimmage. Still, something has to change.
"We would like to be a better pass-rush team," Snyder said.
Perhaps linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Brown can help that effort by becoming more involved with blitzes. Maybe the Wildcats can switch up their coverage schemes and give the defensive line more time to get to Tannehill.
There are plenty of possibilities. The last time K-State faced Texas A&M, the Wildcats held the Aggies to 301 yards in a 62-14 victory one week after allowing 66 points to Texas Tech.
"We're still confident," Malone said. "We're just making sure we're still together and not losing any guys on defense. You can only keep practicing and working on it. We'll improve."