MANHATTAN, Kan. — Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, an era Kansas State fans reverentially refer to as their “decade of dominance,” the Wildcats routinely competed for Big 12 titles thanks to their defense.
They were tough. They were talented. They were stingy.
They were a lot like this year’s bunch.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the Wildcats (2-1) rank at or near the top of just about every defensive statistical category in major college football. They have allowed just seven points to their last two opponents — though in fairness, Saturday night’s game against Missouri State was called at halftime due to lightning — and have held all three opponents to 300 yards or less.
In the points-a-plenty Big 12, the Wildcats are a rarity.
“A lot of guys are hungry,” explained Kansas State linebacker Elijah Lee, one of the veteran leaders of the defense. “We’re trying to race each other to the tackle and see who can get there. Just playing with that chip on us makes us a lot faster.”
It’s hardly a surprise the Wildcats have a chip on their shoulder.
Just last year, they allowed more than 30 points a game, tied with Texas for 90th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They gave up 159.4 yards on the ground and 283.1 through the air.
Injuries did not help: Top safety Dante Barnett missed almost the entire year , and several other key contributors were forced to watch big chunks of the season from the sideline.
They’re almost all back, and youngsters pressed into service have a year of experience now. And the results were better from the start, when Kansas State held high-powered Stanford in check in a Week 1 road game against Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffery and Co.
McCaffery managed 126 yards rushing, but he had to work for it. And the unbeaten Cardinal only had 167 yards passing and mustered nine points in the second half of their 26-13 victory.
Florida Atlantic gained 216 yards against Kansas State two weeks ago, turning the ball over four times and converting 1 of 13 third downs in a 63-7 romp. And in the half played against Missouri State on Saturday night, the Bears completed three passes and gained 54 yards.
“I do not look at the statistics, only when the season is over,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said recently, “but just based on the assessment and evaluation of where we are right now, I would say yes, we are an improved defensive football team from last year.”
Well, here are the statistics: Kansas State has allowed 537 yards through three games, best in major college football. They are first in yards passing at 106.7 per game, fourth in points allowed with 33, and tied for sixth with Boise State in yards rushing at 72.3 per game.
But leave it to Snyder to put even the most glowing of marks in perspective.
“That would speak very negatively of us as coaches if we were not (better),” he said, “considering the fact we have a good deal of experience coming back as well. I’ve said so many times, experience is a major factor, whether it is good experience or not, and some of it last year was not.”
Remember, that was a team that allowed at least 33 points four consecutive weeks, beginning with a triple-overtime win over Louisiana Tech. It’s also a team that lost 55-0 to Oklahoma at home and surrendered a dizzying amount of offense in a 59-44 loss at Texas Tech.
“We have been doing a pretty good job at this point,” Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis said, “but it’s a matter of my teammates and I keeping it up going forward. Once our attitude is set and we get ready to go, it will be tough to play against us.”
The Wildcats get their first real test since Stanford on Saturday, when they open Big 12 play at West Virginia. Mountaineers quarterback Skylar Howard has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns while helping his team to a 3-0 start.
Then again, perhaps the Wildcats will be the first real test of the season for him.
“We still have little things to iron out before we get in to league play,” Lee said, “and that is something we are going to take day-by-day this week.”