MANHATTAN — Kansas State has an unproven quarterback and a green group of receivers. So what did UCLA's defense do to attack the Wildcats' offense Saturday?
The Bruins stacked the box, of course, and focused on senior running back Daniel Thomas, one of the most dangerous threats in the country.
And what did Thomas do?
He rushed for 234 yards and two touchdowns because it doesn't matter how full the box is, the Wildcats always find the prize. Saturday, they came home with a 31-22 win.
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UCLA, to its credit, did slow Thomas down in the second quarter. After picking up 40 yards in the first quarter, he found room for only 13 yards in the second, a big reason why the Bruins led 13-10 at the half.
A tweak here and a touch-up there and Thomas was at his best in the second half. Kansas State threw the passing game pretty much out the window and gave the game to Thomas, who rushed for 194 yards on 14 carries in the second half.
His understudy, shifty senior William Powell, added 63 yards.
I'm of the belief that Kansas State can't have the kind of season it wants to have with Thomas carrying such a heavy load. But after watching the Cats pound it on the ground against UCLA, what do I know?
Kansas State had 313 rushing yards and only 64 through the air. The disparity in yardage is noticeable, but the number '313' makes a statement.
"For a quiet young guy — he doesn't have a lot to say — Daniel plays so hard,'' Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "Second, third, fourth effort — that's just his way. I'm awful proud of him.''
Thomas wouldn't be a great running back if he didn't give credit to his offensive line. But as good as the blocking was, he still found ways to bounce off tacklers or, even better, run through them. He's 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, so linebackers don't like seeing him coming their way and safeties despise it.
"When Daniel is in there, he bangs them up,'' the 5-9, 205-pound Powell said. "Then I want to come in and move around them.''
Snyder's best teams at Kansas State have been offensively diverse. This passing game and quarterback Carson Coffman needs lots of work.
Snyder has never coached a bowl team that averaged fewer than 136.1 yards of passing per game and normally the Wildcats have done much better than that. Running the football has always been important — four Snyder-coached teams at Kansas State averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game.
This one will be challenged to get the passing game on track. Coffman did pass for a big touchdown late, a five-yard hook-up with Brodrick Smith with 2:03 left that put K-State ahead 24-16. He hit tight end Travis Tannahill for 13 yards in the third quarter, had another 13-yard completion to wide receiver Aubrey Qaurles, and a 21-yard completion to Thomas — yes, he can catch, too — set up a K-State first-quarter touchdown.
But Coffman, who battled cramps and sickness, was inconsistent and unable to thwart UCLA's pass rush, which bothered him most of the game.
Eventually, Coffman will have to play better for K-State to be successful, but Thomas, and to a lesser degree Powell, do provide the Wildcats with a warm security blanket.
"I didn't know I had as many yards as I did until I got in here after the game,'' Thomas said. "We just wanted to come out in this game and finish. I think we've been labeled as a team that can't finish a game and Coach Snyder said we needed to go out today and make a statement. I think we did that.''
Thomas did lose a fumble in the first half, so he wasn't perfect. And that might be the most nit-picky thing ever pointed out about a player who did so much to help his team win a game.
Last season, Thomas carried 247 times and he showed some of the wear and tear. It's not easy to be the guy who everybody in the stadium knows is going to get the ball and still produce.
He carried 28 times Saturday, and you know Snyder and his offensive coaches wince when they see that number.
"Yeah, I think I want to prove something,'' Thomas said. "I want to show that I can go out and play good every game and that last year wasn't a fluke. UCLA loaded the box against me today, but I think my offensive line made my job a lot easier. I didn't know I had as many carries as I did, but I can take a few more. I guess.''
He might get them, although if Powell continues to averaged 12 yards per carry — as he did in his six attempts Saturday — the load might lighten some.
Coffman doesn't look like a quarterback who can stretch the field. He had a couple of open receivers deep in the game, but didn't show the kind of arm that can reach them.
It will be interesting to watch Snyder work with this offense. He's a mastermind, capable of finding the right schemes and playbook to utilize personnel.
Trouble is, he's had a lot of time with Coffman already and results are slow to materialize. Kansas State's untested receiving corps appears talented enough to have an impact.
For now, though, Thomas, whose parents, brother and cousin saw him play for the first time since high school, is Kansas State's impact. He's one of the most impacting running backs in the country. UCLA had every intention of making his life difficult Saturday, but instead it was just another day in the park.
"Daniel, he's like Superman,'' Powell said. "He's so durable; nothing can stop him. He's like 'bang, bang, bang,' and still he gets right back in there.''