What has happened to Kansas State’s rushing attack?
That’s a question fans, coaches and players are all asking right now with the Wildcats coming off back-to-back losses in which running the ball felt more like a weakness than a strength.
Coming up with answers might not be easy. K-State began the season by rushing for 361 yards in a blowout victory over Nicholls, and it seemed like the power running game Chris Klieman used so successfully at North Dakota State was an instant hit in Manhattan, especially when the Wildcats churned out 333 rushing yards the following week. But their ground production has dropped significantly since those first two games.
K-State rushed for 146 yards against Mississippi State, dipped to 126 yards against Oklahoma State and then bottomed out with 123 yards against Baylor.
“Power” no longer seems like the right word to describe K-State’s running game, which is averaging 3.6 yards per attempt against Power Five conference teams.
“We have to look ourselves in the mirror and identify who we are as a a football team,” senior running back James Gilbert said. “We are a physical, smash mouth football team on offense, defense and special teams. I think this bye week will get us back to dominating the fundamentals and just seeing who we are as a football team again.”
Re-establishing a productive running attack should be the top priority for Klieman and his coaching staff before they resume play against TCU on Oct. 19.
The Wildcats are at their best when they run the ball effectively. A good game from Gilbert makes things easier for Skylar Thompson when he drops back to pass. The defense also gets to enjoy long breaks between action. Everything becomes more difficult when Gilbert gets tackled in the backfield.
That has happened too often over the past two weeks. Baylor recorded 15 tackles for loss.
Still, K-State players are confident they can get things turned around. After reviewing their past two games, they say many of those negative plays were close to becoming big plays.
“I think we have done some good stuff,” tight end Blaise Gammon said. “We improved from Oklahoma State. It’s just little things, one or two guys not being able to sustain and finish a block. If we can make those happen and get over the hump we will see that success again. That is what we are going to be working on all this week and next week, trying to improve and focus on those things because we need to be able run the ball to work our whole offense.”
It sounds simple. But is it?
Klieman’s offense worked like a machine at North Dakota State because of talent as much as it did scheme. The Bison typically ran behind offensive linemen, fullbacks and tight ends that were bigger, faster and stronger than their opponents. They made it look easy.
K-State doesn’t currently benefit from those same advantages lining up against Big 12 opponents, especially with No. 2 running back Jordon Brown sidelined because of an injury. The Wildcats are blessed with a senior-laden offensive line, but they are new to this offense. Their tight ends and fullbacks have promise, but they don’t fit the mold of players Klieman recruited for those positions at his previous job.
Several times over the past two games, K-State appeared to have lead blockers in place for potentially explosive edge runs, but they went nowhere when blitzing linebackers zoomed around them and hit Gilbert or backup Harry Trotter before they could get to the perimeter.
“It’s just execution,” Gilbert said. “It’s not the play-calling. It comes down to the players on the field. It doesn’t matter what (offensive coordinator Courtney) Messingham calls, we just have to execute as players. I just feel like at times we have been consistent, we have been having explosive plays, it’s just not there every play. We have to get that fixed in practice. It starts with the players.”
Gilbert broke free for a 29-yard gain against Baylor and an 18-yard scamper against Oklahoma State, but there have been few other big rushing plays.
“What we have to eliminate is the negative plays,” Klieman said. “We’re getting seven, we’re getting eight, we’re getting nine. Then we miss a block, we miss a read, we miss a cut, then, all of a sudden, you lose two, you lose three. That’s the thing we have to eliminate, and it’s everybody. It’s not the O-line, it’s not the backs, it’s not the tight end and it’s not the quarterback. It’s a collective group that we have to eliminate the negative plays.”
With that in mind, Klieman wants his assistants to figure out if the Wildcats run the ball best out of spread or condensed formations. He wants to know if they are more efficient under center or out of the shotgun.
If this team is built to run the ball a certain way, he wants to cater to that style moving forward.
Anything to insert “power” back into K-State’s running game.