More Than Meets the Eye
They call him Optimus Klein.
A fitting moniker inspired by Optimus Prime – leader of the Autobots in the Transformers movie and cartoon franchise. Why does the nickname fit so perfectly? Because while Kansas State’s Collin Klein runs with the football under his arm like a Peterbilt semi-truck Prime actually is one.
Klein is 6-foot-5, weighs more than a ninth of a ton and sheds linebackers like dirty T-shirts on laundry day. A year ago he rushed for 27 touchdowns. In fact, he ran the ball 317 times in 2011. To put that into perspective, Klein had 34 more carries than Alabama feature back Trent Richardson and 10 more than Wisconsin workhorse Montee Ball.
By the way, did I mention that Klein is a quarterback?
Despite lining up behind center and standing as tall as any of his starting linemen, Klein’s rushing numbers are eerily similar to those of West Virginia running back Andrew Buie. Klein has 98 carries for 515 yards on the season; Buie, 104 carries for 504 yards. Even their attempts that have resulted in first downs are separated by just a whisker: 28 for Klein, 26 for Buie.
Klein’s colossal legs are the undisputable driving force behind Kansas State’s 15th-ranked scoring offense (41 points per game). But the challenge for the West Virginia defense doesn’t stop there. Klein has also made significant strides as a passer – elevating his completion percentage a full 10 points from 57% a year ago to 67% this fall. Moreover, despite his well-deserved reputation as a wrecking ball in the ground game, Klein isn’t even the Wildcats leading rusher. That distinction belongs to tailback John Hubert – in my estimation one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. Hubert (606 yards, eight TDs) is a shifty junior averaging a gaudy 6.2 yards per tote.
“Collin Klein is a tremendous football player. You watch him on tape, and you have to stop the run because between him and their running back, John Hubert, they rush for 200 some yards a game,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier this week.
Holgorsen realizes that K-State Co-Offensive Coordinators Del Miller and Dana Dimel don’t relent in the run game. For the balance of 60 minutes they beat on you until your technique disintegrates and you start missing tackles. The evidence is easy to uncover. Klein’s average per carry goes from five yards in the first two quarters to 5 ½ in the final two while Hubert’s average jumps from 5.6 per attempt in the first half to a ridiculously robust 6.8 in the second. All of this, of course, sets the table for big play possibilities in the play action game, accounting for Klein’s chunky 13.6 yards per completion (two yards better than Geno Smith’s 11.6 average).
No one stays ahead of the chains like Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. It’s a defensive chore to stop them at no gain, much less to get them moving backward. There’s not a team in major college football with fewer penalty yards than Kansas State’s 22 per game. Only 10 teams have allowed a smaller number of opponents’ tackles for loss than the four per game surrendered by KSU’s offense and only seven teams have yielded fewer sacks. This results in down and distance situations that are consistently manageable, leading directly to KSU’s No. 10 national ranking in third down success. If you see the Wildcats in a second and 18 or a third and 16, be sure to snap a picture of it. It’s almost that rare.
The Wildcats have been the chameleons of the Big 12 in recent years, changing style when needed to fit their environment and get the win. They’ve won 16 of their last 19 games by scores ranging from 10-7 and 17-13 to 41-34 and 53-50. Snyder loves to play the possession game (KSU held the football for more than 40 minutes in last week’s win at Iowa State), but that’s not K-State’s only trick. With an explosive offense (34 plays of 20-plus yards compared to WVU’s 36) and a ball hawking defense that’s already forced 14 turnovers, Snyder’s squad can just as readily beat you with a small clock too. Just ask North Texas and Kansas, two teams the Wildcats upended despite having the football for just 23 minutes against each.
A week ago, the West Virginia defense was given the tall order of stopping Texas Tech triggerman Seth Doege, owner of 45 career touchdown passes at the time. This Saturday the Mountaineers face a quarterback who has rushed for 43 scores in his career. Another day, another grueling obstacle. Such is life in the perpetual gauntlet run by Big 12 defensive coaches.
The question is: Will this matchup against a brutish and more openly physical K-State offense favor the Mountaineers more than last week’s challenge against the high-flying Red Raiders?
“This is a different challenge,” said Holgorsen. “With any team, there are challenges and this one just happens to be with stopping the run.”
Maybe that will bode well for a West Virginia defense that, while struggling mightily on the back end, has limited the opposition to less than 3.3 yards per carry. Either way, this won’t be the first time Holgorsen has crossed swords with Snyder.
“I’m very familiar with Coach (Bill) Snyder and what he has been able to do over the course of his tenure at Kansas State,” said Holgorsen.
Holgorsen has faced Snyder a number of times through the years. When last they met, Holgorsen was the maestro behind Oklahoma State’s record setting offense in 2010. The Cowboys were actually held scoreless in Manhattan until a Brandon Weeden touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining in the first half tied the game and set the stage for what ultimately proved to be a hard fought, 24-14 OSU win.
“They are the same way that they’ve always been,” Holgorsen said on Tuesday. “They are very, very tough - they are a physical group.”
Texas was touted two weeks ago as the most talented team West Virginia had seen since LSU last September. That might have been true, but K-State certainly deserves its place as the most “complete” team the Mountaineers have faced since that same LSU squad. No one nails down the little things like Bill Snyder. Since his return to Manhattan in 2009, Kansas State is plus-33 in turnover margin. The Wildcats are a fundamentally sharp group that runs the ball and stops the run. They rarely get flagged and they play the field position game as well as anyone out there, ranking No. 2 in the country in punt return average and No. 19 in kickoff returns.
In short, they don’t beat themselves.
The margin of error against a team so efficient is always very small. The Wildcats are built to frustrate your efforts toward big play opportunities by shortening the game. West Virginia averages 13 offensive possessions per contest. K-State has limited the opposition to just 11.7 possessions per game and even held Landry Jones and the Oklahoma offense to a mere 10 in last month’s win in Norman. What seems like a small gap between numbers here can easily be enough of a difference to decide whether the Mountaineers win or lose Saturday.
Further complicating things is the fact that Kansas State has committed a mere four turnovers all season. If you are fortunate enough to steal a takeaway or two from this crew, then it’s critical that you do something with it – and West Virginia has fallen short on that recently. The last time the WVU offense was given the ball by turnover and actually transformed that opportunity into points was against Maryland almost a month ago. Early in the fourth quarter of that 31-21 win over the Terps, Terrence Garvin recovered a fumble forced by Darwin Cook and nine plays later Geno Smith hit Tavon Austin from 34 yards out for the Mountaineers final score of the day. Four times since that sequence the WVU defense has forced a turnover and all four times the offense has failed to deliver points off of it. It cost West Virginia an early chance to possibly swing the momentum in its favor a week ago at Texas Tech. That can’t happen again this week against Kansas State.
The Wildcats are likely playing the best football we’ve seen from them since they ambushed top-ranked Oklahoma 35-7 in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game to snatch their last league crown. They are exceptional in some areas but solid in all. That said, this is still the same team that just 50 weeks ago gave up more than 1,000 yards passing and 110 points in consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Somewhere deep down in a place they don’t talk about at press conferences, those memories no doubt still haunt Kansas State defenders like Arthur Brown and Nigel Malone. That’s why I question whether or not the Wildcats can tame Geno Smith in his own house, where he has amassed 52 career touchdown passes against just seven picks.
K-State might have Optimus Klein at its disposal, but something tells me West Virginia’s Gold and Blue Destroyer Droid Model 12 might be taking aim with a few heat seekers of his own.
See you at the fifty.
West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Kansas State Wildcats, Big 12 football, Fox
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