Bob Lutz

Thomas continues to be Wildcats' one-man band

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Daniel Thomas and The Kitty Cats keep churning out the hits. But Daniel is being asked to sing lead vocal, play the lead guitar, mix in some piano and hit the drums every once in a while.

Here's hoping this group is not a one-hit wonder.

Thomas, Kansas State's senior running back, said this week he would welcome the opportunity to carry the football 30 times a game. Well, against Iowa State on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, he got 34. He rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns and the Wildcats eked out a 27-20 win over the Cyclones.

It was a similar game to the one the two teams played last season in Arrowhead — at least in tension. K-State won in 2009, 24-23, thanks to a blocked PAT with 32 seconds remaining. This one rated just a notch below in drama, but the Wildcats did need fourth-quarter heroics, which they got from Thomas and a defense that overcame a soft first three quarters to find its backbone.

Thomas rushed for 96 yards against the Cyclones last season on 25 carries. He was supported by a passing game — Grant Gregory completed 16 of 23 for 206 yards.

Such support doesn't exist yet for this year's team. Quarterback Carson Coffman did make a couple of big completions, but he also threw a horrendous interception that was returned for a touchdown and still doesn't look comfortable in his own skin.

But there are no solid alternatives and Coffman has been just good enough so far to keep K-State coach Bill Snyder from having to force one.

Meanwhile, what looks like a promising receiving corps bides its time, waiting for Coffman to develop. He passed only 12 times Saturday, completing six for 104 yards. Brodrick Smith, who appears capable of being the passing game's complement to Thomas, hauled in three for 66 yards, including a huge 47-yard catch that set up Kansas State's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

But when push comes to shove, Thomas is the one getting pushed and shoved. Turns out that his 247 carries last season — just more than 20 per game — were just a warm-up. Through three games this season, Thomas has 84 rushes for 552 yards and six touchdowns. That's 6.6 yards per carry. And all those pretty numbers hardly motivate Kansas State's coaches to look elsewhere for offense.

"I do not have a number,'' K-State coach Bill Snyder said when asked an ideal number of carries for Thomas in a game. "If he does not carry the ball at all but we play well and do the things we are supposed to, I would be happy with that. If he carries 50 times and we do well and gain success from it, then I am happy with that, too.''

Thomas, who took close to a dozen snaps out of the "Wildcat" formation Saturday, has eight 100-yard rushing games in his K-State career and has comfortably exceeded that 100-yard total in all three games this season. He's a breakaway threat and a pounder, rolled into one. He's the apple of Manhattan's eye.

But every time a K-State fan exalts in a Thomas carry, he or she always has to wince. Yes, he's a brute at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds. He has enough shiftiness and instinct to usually avoid solid contact. But enough pounding wears down even the toughest of brutes.

Snyder is trying to get off his horse when he can. Senior running back William Powell gets a few carries a game, and usually does well. Obviously, Kansas State's offensive line — which drew praise from Snyder on Saturday — is doing a bang-up job of run blocking.

Pass blocking is another matter. Safe to say, the Wildcats' passing game is evolving and sometimes progress is not easy to find.

Even Coffman's 47-yard completion to Smith was a hold-your-breath spectacle. The pass looked like it would be intercepted, but at the last second the Iowa State defender fell away from the ball and it dropped safely into Smith's hands.

Mostly, though, K-State is safe only when the ball is safely in Thomas' hands. Such predictable offense can work against the UCLAs, Missouri States and Iowa States of the world. It might even work next week against Central Florida.

Ultimately, though, Kansas State has to find more balance. And by more balance, I mean a passing game. And by a passing game, I mean better throws and better awareness from Coffman and better blocking by the big hosses in front of him.

Thomas is on pace to carry the football 332 times this season, and the Wildcats haven't even hit the most challenging part of their schedule.

Snyder called his meal ticket "durable" after Saturday's game and as the word came out of his mouth, he was knocking on the wood podium in front of him three times.

Thomas is already K-State's 10th-leading career rusher and he's been in Manhattan about 15 minutes. At this pace, he has a chance to move just behind Darren Sproles into the No. 2 spot.

He's a joy to watch, and no doubt every Wildcat fan loves the show.

But there will come a time for someone else to take the microphone. Kansas State's 3-0 record hides the team's lack of versatility, and to win big in the Big 12 there need to be harmonies. The same guy, no matter how great, can't do it all.

That's Kansas State's challenge, and you know Snyder is working on it every second of every day. He has a truly special running back in Thomas, a player who should be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. If the Wildcats can find ways to support him more than they are now, it helps everyone.

Every once in a while, the Beatles even let Ringo sing.