Kevin Haskin: Fine line K-State treads must be navigated in upcoming home tests

Sound execution particularly vital to Wildcats’ success in Big 12 matchups

Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder watches his team prior to their Big 12 matchup Saturday against Texas in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

One aspect about Kansas State football that can be maddening, yet comforting in another sense, is that Big 12 outcomes are rarely pre-determined.

 

The Wildcats have a chance to be in every game because unheralded recruits buy into the system, improve appreciably and play hard.

Yet, those same recruits sometimes lack the raw talent and athleticism possessed by opponents.

These qualities were evident Saturday when K-State went toe-to-toe with Texas.

In the second OT, K-State retreated far enough that the toe of reliable kicker Matthew McCrane could not quite connect on a long field goal, while the toe of Texas running back Chris Warren crossed the goal line with rugby-style help from teammates.

The 40-34 setback was the second nail-biter K-State (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) has lost on the season. The other was at Vanderbilt, a 14-7 slugfest in the Cats’ only other road game.

One certifiable takeaway from the UT outcome was the same point K-State coach Bill Snyder stressed in his postgame remarks, and presumably to his team.

“It boiled down to execution,’’ he said. “We didn’t execute the things we needed to do and we’ve got to do a better job.’’

Most coaches typically say that following a defeat. The style Kansas State plays, attempting to dictate terms with smart precision, makes the statement all the more accurate.

Execution is most critical for the Cats, because they often have little margin for error, especially within the Big 12.

On average in conference play, K-State’s scoring margin in the first eight seasons since Snyder returned as coach (2009-16) was plus-4.1 points. With the loss to Texas, the Cats carry a plus margin of 3.5 points through two league games this year.

A visit from TCU (5-0, 2-0), suddenly the Big 12’s best hope for the College Football Playoff, is next up at 11 a.m. Saturday in Manhattan.

Against Texas, questionable play selection and clock management at the end of regulation almost cost K-State the outcome before OT.

Yet that same play selection led to unexpected gains through the air in the first half when the Cats attacked the Longhorns’ secondary.

Quarterback play favored UT’s Sam Ehlinger, a true freshman who played beyond his years in totaling 487 yards.

Yet when senior Jesse Ertz was removed after stumbling on a third-quarter keeper, Alex Delton came in and was fully ready to engineer plays K-State was comfortable in him executing.

At the end, the Longhorns solved the Cats’ predictability, and the Cats were unable to hold up against the Longhorns’ weaponry, which first-year coach Tom Herman appears quite capable of managing.

“Whether we were more physical than them, I’m not sure,’’ said Herman, “but I know we at least matched it.’’

Particularly when it was K-State that was caught too often for holding, though some calls seemed ticky-tack. Also, it was K-State that could not move the football in the second overtime. And K-State that had its pile pushed into the end zone on the decisive touchdown. And K-State that lost the battle for possession.

Remember that improvement is another benchmark the Wildcats typically achieve over the course of a season under Snyder, who stands 44-28 in the Big 12 in his second go-round as coach. Over that stretch, he is 20-15 in league games decided by 10 points or less.

Moving forward to the here and now, the Cats must improve considerably — in all phases, from all players and coaches — if they are to finish, as predicted, among the Big 12’s upper crust.

Limitations on offense that were first exposed at Vanderbilt are now coupled with defensive shortcomings, which Texas exploited by doubling K-State in first downs (32-16) with a 546-394 advantage in total offensive yardage.

TCU is fully capable of capitalizing on deficiencies. Oklahoma too, despite its stunning loss to Iowa State.

Those are K-State’s next two opponents. Sound execution in those home games is critical if the Cats are not to be outmanned.

Contact Kevin Haskin at kevin.haskin@cjonline.com or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.

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