Kansas State Wildcats

Kansas State rushing game provides hope for the rest of the season

Kansas State wide receiver Isaiah Zuber, right, dives for a touchdown past Texas Tech defensive back Jah'Shawn Johnson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas Tech in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Entering this year, the main concern for the Kansas State Wildcats was their offense–primarily their quarterback. Against high-quality opponents, signal-caller Jesse Ertz has been underwhelming.

When Kansas State opened its season against Stanford, Ertz completed only 47.1 percent of his throws. Last week against West Virginia, he completed only 33.3 percent of his passes. However, when the Wildcats took on the Texas Tech Red Raiders Saturday night, Ertz played well enough to help his team win 44-38–a season high for points scored in a game by KSU.

Ertz completed 10 of his 20 passes–his best completion rate against Power Five schools–for 104 yards and a touchdown. While those numbers aren’t video game statistics, Ertz led the Wildcats on six scoring drives.

Although Ertz played effectively–which Kansas State coach Bill Snyder asks out of his signal callers–the Wildcats’ running game led to their Big 12 scoring outburst.

Under Snyder, Kansas State’s offense isn’t like normal pass-happy Big 12 offenses. The Wildcats are dedicated to the running game. Over the past few seasons, that running game has been up and down. In 2013, the Wildcats possessed the No. 50 overall rushing attack. Then in 2014, it fell to No. 99. Last year it improved, but only to No. 78.

Before Kansas State took on Texas Tech, it was easy to think its running game would be like the 2014 Wildcats’ running attack–lackluster. Kansas State’s rushing attack against Stanford and West Virginia combined for a mere 212 yards on 74 attempts, a 2.9 yards-per-carry average against Power Five opponents.

Against Texas Tech, the rushing attack finally uncorked its breakout game of the 2016 season.

Running back Charles Jones started the year as Kansas State’s main option out of the backfield. However, Snyder benched him in favor of other backups: Justin Silmon, Dalvin Warmack and Alex Barnes. His return to the starting lineup paid dividends for the Wildcats.

Throughout the whole game versus the Red Raiders, Jones slashed and dashed for five or more yards on almost all of his 19 carries. Two of those attempts–a 26-yard gain late in the first quarter and a 31-yard carry early in the fourth quarter–helped Kansas State get into field goal position, in which they made kicks to create a two-score lead. On those 19 attempts, Jones rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown.

“If you go back to last year’s ballgame against Texas Tech, [Jones] did the exact same thing” Snyder said during his postgame presser. “When he puts his mind to it, runs hard and aggressively, and not try to pick his way around, he really helps us.”

While Jones led the Wildcats in rushing against the Red Raiders, he wasn’t the only one doing damage on the ground Saturday night.

As a thrower, Ertz largely met Kansas State’s level of passing game expectations. As a runner, Ertz exceeded expectations — he was phenomenal alongside Jones.

Ertz attempted the same number of rushes as the completions he collected–10. He turned those 10 carries into 83 yards and a score for Kansas State.

The offense wasn’t the sole unit to lead the Wildcats to victory. The Kansas State defense picked off Texas Tech’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and on special teams, Byron Pringle returned a kickoff 99 yards.

This defensive showing against a Big 12 opponent should give hope to Snyder as the season progresses. Kansas State has a national championship-level defense–it ranks in the top three (No. 2) nationally. After allowing 28 points in the first half to one of the most prolific offenses in the country, the Wildcats allowed the Red Raiders to score only 10 points in the second half.

“Second half,” Kansas State linebacker Elijah Lee said. “We had the mindset that they can’t do to us what they did to us in the first half.”

While possessing such an elite defense, that won’t help the Wildcats contend for Big 12 title.

To win a conference such as the Big 12, teams need the ability to score 45 to 50-plus points per game if they want to contend. Over the years, Kansas State’s offense hasn’t been close to that.

If the Wildcats’ offense can continue this level of scoring, they could make some noise in the Big 12 late in the season, because with the way the conference has looked so far in 2016, anything could happen.

Critics will say that Texas Tech doesn’t offer as much defensive resistance. Kansas State’s task is to show that this game is only the beginning of a steady ascendance in the Big 12.

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