Kansas State has a legitimately good offense. The offense is highlighted by an All-American wide receiver, Tyler Lockett, a senior quarterback with the name of a pulp Western gunslinger, Jake Waters, two all conference offensive linemen, and an all conference fullback named Gronkowski. They don't have a terrible player anywhere on the field. They show a good mix of formations and personnel. Their offensive scheme is one of the best at putting defenders on an island and forcing them to make solo tackles and difficult choices.
Kansas State's offensive success is based less on its physical superiority and more on being disciplined and smart. They will take advantage of favorable matchups and punish defenders who get out of position. This is a very good Kansas State team who should win at least nine games this year and challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. We will face offenses more talented than Kansas State before the year is done, but you will almost never see a team as good as squeezing every last drop of talent out of its players. The whole of the Kansas State offense is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
Our purple feline brethren have a strong offensive tradition under Bill Snyder. Snyder started off as an offensive coordinator for the legendary and innovative Hayden Fry and moved his success to Kansas State. Bill Snyder took a program that was 299-510 (the only major college program at the time with 500 or more losses) all-time before he arrived and has gone 180-90-1 since. At one point, Snyder won eleven games in six of seven seasons. Snyder retired after the 2005 season.
When the crown Prince failed to produce results, Kansas State hailed the Return of the King Bill in 2009. Now, at 74, Snyder has again made Kansas State a force in college football. In 2012, they were ranked #1 before being upset by Baylor on the second to last week of the season. Without that loss, Kansas State would have played Notre Dame for the national championship.
Snyder's formula is simple enough. Mix offensive creativity with a few solid JUCO recruits from Smallville CC and boom! You have a winning team.
Kansas States spreads defenses as well as anyone in college football. They usually have receivers on or outside of both numbers on the field. The boys at Football Study Hall estimated that K-State may spread defenses more than anyone in the country because defenders were forced to make a solo tackle against the Wildcats more than 88% of the time. This means that missed tackles can lead to disaster on any given play because there may not be a second defender backing you up.
As we all know, there's more than one type of spread. Auburn's spread borrows a lot from the Wing T with misdirection and power blocking. The RichRod spread he ran with Pat White at West Virginia borrows from the veer. Mike Leach, Holgorsen, and others stem off of the old run-and-shoot with Air Raid offenses. Kansas State's offense uses a lot of different sets and personnel, but at heart, it's a power I. Their quarterback, Jake Waters is their I Back.
Jake is 6'1" 210 pounds and runs a 4.6 40. He was the nation's top JUCO quarterback for the 2013 class. His JUCO, Iowa Western is known as the Reivers (which is apparently a river pirate), but he plays like a Reaver from Firefly. He's fearless and doesn't shrink from contact. He's now a senior and is a tough and clever quarterback. His running style reminds me of Tim Tebow. He's built for power rather than speed and makes yards between the tackles. Jake has 37 carries on the year, 16 more than their tailback and wildcat QB Charles Jones. He averages over five yards per carry. Jones, the wildcat has more speed but isn't any more dangerous of a ball carrier than Waters. It seems like they only run a wildcat to give Waters a few plays off from getting hit. For the interested, Bring on the Cats did a nice statistical examination of Kansas State's use of the wildcat formation (and some additional film study of the KState offense) here.
Here's one of his go-to plays. I've had trouble deciding what to call it's closest to a sweep out of the Power I formation so we're calling it a sweep.
Let me have a moment to geek out over the fact that Kansas State has two running backs with their hands in the dirt in a three-point stance. Very old school moment brought to you by the man who pioneered the stand-up tight end at Iowa. This formation is heavily unbalanced. The tight end is on the bottom of the screen and he's covered up by a wide receiver, making him ineligible. So you have three blocking linemen to the formation's right, plus twins, plus two running backs. Add in a half man each for the center and quarterback and you have 8 men to the right and three to the left of the formation.
This is what you'll see when the play starts.
The running backs go to the edge of the formation. The fullback shows a stalk block to the linebacker then runs a go route on a seam while the halfback looks to wall off any linebackers pursuing the play the outside. The tailback seals off the playside linebacker. The wide receivers similarly stalk and try to get their corners to chase them out of the play. The playside linemen seem to have an "On/Down" scheme blocking the man across from them, if any, and helping with a lineman toward the inside of the play if not. The uncovered backside guard pulls into the hole and seals off the backside linebacker. Waters will take a forward step and a hop to let the play develop. Rather like a tailback on a sweep out of the I, his job is to find the opening in the line and hit it full speed. His inclination should be to take the play outside where the tailback has sealed off pursuit but he can also cut back inside if a cut back lane presentes itself. (As an aside, I don't think he has the option to pass on these plays. I believe run or pass is called in the huddle for blocking purposes). Here's how the play looks live:
(Something went weird with TubeChop. You may need to hit play twice to get it to work right.)
Waters doesn't have Nick Marshall speed and is unlikely to break really long runs against Auburn but, as seen above, he's more than effective enough to hurt you in 15-25 yard chunks. Here is a similar run they called twice in a row near the goal line at the end of the game. This is more like a traditional I formation isolation play with Waters following Gronkowski to glory.
Each lineman takes the man across from them. The center goes for the weak linebacker. Gronkowski leads through the hole on the Mike linebacker. The tight end arc releases and winds up blocking a nickleback on the slot. The safety gets so wrapped up in stopping Waters from making the first down that he gets out of position and allows the play to go for a touchdown.
If you play the designed Waters runs too aggressively, Kansas State goes to its counter-punch, the play-action pop pass. This play was discussed as part of an excellent series on pop passes in college football found here. This play is an option. The quarterback can keep if the defenders stay deep or pass if they come up to stop him. Here's an example from early in the Iowa State game.
(Again, you may need to hit play twice to get it to work.) Now what happened here?
Iowa State shows a 4 deep zone (cover 4) but rotates the playside safety up after the snap to defend the quarterback power. This leaves three deep defenders in a sky cover 3. The playside linebacker chases the fullback to the flat. The middle linebacker (who should have the middle zone) chases the run action into the line. The tight end slips right past the crashing safety. Waters stops, jumps in the air and hits the tight end for a nice gain. Against the pop pass, your defenders have to be disciplined. The man assigned to the tight end cannot come off of him or give him any space until Waters crosses the line of scrimmage.
Kansas State's dropback passing game is solid but not exceptional. This has more to do with Waters' occasionally erratic arm than their receivers. Waters throws a nice deep ball with just enough air to run under it. He throws excellent short to midrange touch passes. His precision routes like the hitch or slant that call for passes delivered on a frozen rope are often a little wild.
Their receiving corps is led by All American senior receiver Tyler Lockett. Other than Amari Cooper, Lockett may be the best receiver we see this year. Tyler is only 5'11" but he's fast, can jump through the roof, and runs good routes. If the corner gives Lockett space, Waters will throw a series of quick hitches and outs to dare you to come up. If you play close, Lockett will blow past you. When Waters wants to throw to him, he doesn't care how well the route is defended. He will throw it up and trust Lockett to make a play. Waters doesn't rely on the other receivers like he does Lockett but they seem to be capable and run good routes. None of them have Lockett's game changing abilities but they are above average college receivers.
Based on a sample size of one game viewed, Kansas State's offensive line, as a whole, seemed to be well-disciplined but of average to above-average ability. Two of their linemen, Finney and Whitehair, were preseason All-Big 12 and were All-Big 12 last year. The Kansas State offensive line doesn't miss many assignments but are occasionally beaten. Even if they aren't beaten, they don't consistently drive the defender out of the gap or take the point of attack. They gave up a couple of sacks against Iowa State but given how little Kansas State really uses a deep passing game, that's enough to notice. They run block well enough but Kansas State's scheme allows Waters and Jones flexibility in picking their holes and finding cutback lanes so it doesn't matter. The line is helped by an all-conference caliber blocking fullback with a familiar name, Gronkowski.
What to expect from Auburn: I expect Auburn to show looks similar to what it showed against Arkansas. Load the defense up, play close to the line of scrimmage, play man on the corners, leave one safety deep, and force Jake Waters to beat you through the air. I don't see Kansas State having much sustained success against our defensive line and linemen in the running game unless they are able to get Auburn to respect their passing game. On passing downs, Auburn has to keep a linebacker in as a spy on Waters because he is capable of picking up any reasonable distance if the linebackers bail to pass coverage and the defensive linemen get greedy. Kris Frost has done a fine job in the past chasing Johnny Manziel and others. He should be up to the task of shadowing Waters.
How to gauge Auburn's chance of success: Watch how much Kansas State gains on first down. If Auburn can keep them to 2nd and 8 or more consistently by stopping the run and frustrating the pass, Auburn can force K-State to rely on its pocket passing game. If Jake Waters has to throw from the pocket a lot Thursday night, I like our chances.
In short, Kansas State has a creative, powerful attack that forces your defenders to make plays in space one-on-one. They run a little over 60% of the time but pass effectively when they choose to. So, is Auburn in trouble? Maybe. But not enough to cause serious concern unless our offense picks Thursday night to lay an egg. Their offense will get a big play or two on us. They will take some shots and they'll connect some. They could sustain a drive or two. But I don't see them having consistent success against our defense. I don't see them scoring less than 17 or more than 28. Auburn 44, Kansas State 27.