Bob Lutz

Snyder has Kansas State running in right direction

I don't know whether to jump on Kansas State's football bandwagon just yet, not with that freight train in Oklahoma rolling straight at the Wildcats for a game Saturday night in Norman.

I'm not sure what to make of the Cats' 5-3 record or consecutive Big 12 wins over Texas A&M and Colorado, teams we don't think much of except that they have beaten Texas Tech and Kansas.

Because it's all so confusing to me and, I'm sure, to many others, I am attempting to make Kansas State's impressive season to date as simple to explain as possible.

It's all about the ground game.

Bill Snyder, who may or may not be orchestrating Miracle in Manhattan II, loves him some good ol' rough and tumble football.

Snyder's best teams at K-State were those that ran the football and played great defense. It was unusual if the Wildcats weren't one of the top 20 rushing teams in the country and for three seasons in a row (2001-03), they were among the top 10.

Of course, it's easy to be a good running team when you have a tailback like Darren Sproles, whose 4,979 career yards from 2001-04 likely won't be touched.

K-State's struggles the past four years can be closely correlated to a less-than-potent running attack.

It started in the final season of Snyder I, actually, when K-State's rushing offense fell from No. 24 nationally to No. 68.

During Ron Prince's three seasons, the Wildcats ranked 86th, 83rd and 76th.

This season, thanks to junior college transfer Daniel Thomas and clear devotion to the running game, K-State ranks 25th nationally and second in the Big 12, behind Iowa State.

"Coach Snyder's biggest emphasis is that we be solid in all aspects as a football team,'' K-State offensive lineman Wade Weibert said. "But if you don't have a good running game, that's half of the offense you're leaving out of things.''

K-State produced two 100-yard rushing games last season: Logan Dold, 21 carries, 115 yards against Texas A&M; Lamark Brown, 137 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette.

James Johnson and Leon Patton combined for 11 100-yard games in 2006 and 2007, and Thomas Clayton went over 100 yards four times in 2005 and 2006.

Thomas, though, is Kansas State's first big-time running back since Sproles. He's big and shifty and has taken to Snyder's full-steam-ahead way of offense.

"He's an explosive guy, he hits the holes hard,'' K-State senior offensive lineman Nick Stringer said. "Up front, all we have to do is just give him a little hole. It's a confidence factor for all of us up front to have a guy like Daniel running the ball.''

Thomas, who has rushed for 814 yards, has helped Kansas State endure ups and downs at the quarterback position. Because he helps with ball control, K-State's defense doesn't have to be on the field as much as it has in recent seasons.

"When you get the running game established some, it really helps the passing game, too,'' Weibert said. "Then you have a complete offense. But, in my opinion, that running game always seems to be one of the last things to develop as a true skill in an offense."

Snyder inherited an inept team at K-State when he took over in 1989, but nowhere was it more evident than in the running game. The ever-famous Lee Pickett was K-State's leading rusher in 1988, Stan Parrish's final year, and the Wildcats had produced two 1,000-yard single-season rushers in 41 seasons when Eric Gallon broke through with 1,161 yards in 1991, Snyder's third season.

K-State had six 1,000-yard rushers during the 17 years of Snyder I and is about to have its first of Snyder II.

Even in seasons that lacked a go-to running back, Snyder's teams piled up impressive rushing numbers by using a variety of players and styles.

Remember, Snyder moved K-State's top returning running backs to new — or old — positions.

Brown went back to playing receiver, which is what he was recruited to play. And Dold moved to the defensive backfield. The Wildcats' No. 2 rusher last season was quarterback Josh Freeman, who is now in the NFL.

K-State's top returning running back, then, is Keithen Valentine, who gained 140 yards in 2008.

Valentine has 347 yards already this season and quarterback Grant Gregory can tuck the ball and run when he needs to.

But the focal point of K-State's offense is Thomas and every opposing defense knows it. So far, though, he's stayed a step ahead of the pursuit.