Defending the pass is a constant challenge for Big 12 defenses.
One week they’re trying to slow Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the nation’s leading passer, the next they’re trying to cover an elite receiver like Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook or Oklahoma State’s James Washington. Even Iowa State, a team not known for explosive offense, averages 252.4 passing yards. Nothing comes easy.
Still, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder prefers not to use the league’s collection of potent offenses as reason to accept mediocre defense. The Wildcats have allowed an average of 353 passing yards in Big 12 games, a number that ranks ninth in the conference.
“It kind of makes me feel disrespected,” K-State defensive back D.J. Reed said. “I don’t feel like that’s who we are. Obviously, the stats say otherwise, but I feel like we have a good secondary.”
K-State has certainly made big plays against the pass this season. Duke Shelley and Reed have both made a pair of interceptions, while Elijah Lee, Kendall Adams and Matt Seiwert have all made one. Reed also scored on a pick six against Texas Tech. And opponents have failed to convert 11 of 17 fourth-down tries.
Problem is, teams are throwing of big yardage between those stops. K-State has allowed 29 passes for more than 20 yards this season, including eight that have gone for more than 40 yards.
“We have made progress from last year,” Reed said. “I feel like we are making plays, but we are leaving plays out there, too. We are capable of more. We should be getting more turnovers. It is all about us being in position, on top of receivers so we can look and beat the receiver. When we are behind the receiver we have got to play their hands and we can’t get picks.”
The Wildcats have been strong against the run all season and boasted the nation’s top statistical defense at the conclusion of nonconference play. But they have been woeful against the pass, falling from first to 32nd in total defense over the past five weeks, mostly because of a secondary that ranks 107th nationally against the pass.
Texas Tech (529), Oklahoma (372) and Iowa State (339) all topped 300 passing yards against them, while West Virginia (298) and Texas (222) both topped 200.
Snyder seemed most frustrated following a 31-26 win over Iowa State in which Cyclones backup quarterback Jacob Park throw for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
“There were certain schemes that we didn’t execute well against that became a problem in the ballgame,” Snyder said. “Most teams are smart enough, certainly Iowa State is, that when you find something that is going well you tend to repeat it. Smart coaches will do that and they put us in a quandary.”
What can be done to fix those issues?
Discipline seems like the biggest factor. When K-State gets beat for long throws, it is often because a defensive back is too eager to help against the run and loses track of the receiver he should be covering. Tackling could also be better. Texas Tech and Iowa State receivers both turned short catches into long gains by making K-State defenders miss in space.
“Most of our problems are on us,” K-State defensive back Duke Shelley said. “(At Iowa State) we tried to do too much and we had our eyes in the wrong places. They took advantage against us down the seams while we were in cover two. I feel like once everybody does their job and sticks to the concept we will make plays.”
K-State could also benefit from a consistent pass rush. When defensive ends Jordan Willis, Tanner Wood and Reggie Walker pressure the quarterback, which they have done in most games, they make life easier on the secondary. When they can’t get through the offensive line, as they rarely did against Iowa State, opposing quarterbacks have big days.
Pressure is on to improve quickly with Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas and TCU still on the schedule.
Up next is arguably K-State’s biggest remaining defensive test. The Cowboys average 328.5 passing yards beyond quarterback Mason Rudolph and star receivers James Washington and Jalen McCleskey.
Last week, they threw for 273 yards against West Virginia’s stingy defense in a 37-20 victory. Slowing them down won’t be easy.
What else is new?
“I came here to play in the Big 12, knowing the ball is going to be passed a lot,” Reed said. “It is a big challenge, but I look forward to it each and every week … It makes me want to work harder. It makes everyone in the secondary want to work harder.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
No. 22 Oklahoma State at Kansas State
- When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan
- Records: OSU 6-2, 4-1 Big 12; KSU 5-3, 3-2
- Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM, 102.5-FM; KWLS, 107.9-FM
- TV: KAKE
Three things about Oklahoma State
1. The Cowboys returned to the Top 25 this week after defeating previously unbeaten West Virginia 37-20. They have won four in a row since beginning Big 12 play with a loss at Baylor.
2. Mason Rudolph ranks 11th nationally in passing yards. The Oklahoma State quarterback has thrown for 2,532 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
3. Mike Gundy is what you might call a player’s coach. Not only has he sported a crowd-pleasing mullet all season, he has danced in the locker room after every win.
K-State’s pass rush vs. Mason Rudolph. Average passing teams have found success against the Wildcats’ secondary this season. Jordan Willis, Tanner Wood and Reggie Walker need to put pressure on Rudolph and force him into bad situations and help K-State’s defensive backs.
Kellis Robinett’s pick: Oklahoma State, 35-30
K-State is 4-0 at home this season, but Oklahoma State has won four in a row and matches up well with the Wildcats. The Cowboys are hot enough to win in Manhattan.