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November 4, 2008Standing by a pair of consecutive second halves in which it racketed down opponents' points, the Kansas State defense clung to hope that it had finally manufactured some sort of breakthrough. Then along came Kansas, which had little trouble breaking through the Wildcats defense all day. And now the Wildcats must face No. 13 Missouri while attempting to fix ills that have plagued the unit all season. When will it stop? At this rate, it might only end mercifully against Iowa State in a few weeks.
That's because the Wildcats cannot abide to their simple rule: Do your job.
It cost the Wildcats in a 52-21 loss at Kansas. It's cost the Wildcats all season.
"We just have to be assignment sound and everybody has to be on the same page," senior outside linebacker Reggie Walker said. "We can't just do it on one play and on the next play freelance. Every time somebody freelances, that's what happens: They put up points."
Walker had four tackles against the Jayhawks, who last weekend became the latest Big 12 team to scorch the Wildcats behind 469 total yards, or 7.1 yards per play. Kansas scored its most points in the series in 61 years.
Afterward, Walker said K-State coach Ron Prince delivered a message to his devastated squad.
"He was basically saying the players need to do what they're coached to do," Walker said. "You can't do something on one play and then do something completely different the next, something that's way out of character."
How often did that occur among the defense against Kansas?
"It happened a lot," Walker said. "It happened a whole lot."
It's part of the reason why K-State, 4-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big 12, is on pace to allow 400 points for just the fourth time in the 112-year history of the program and for the first time in 20 years since the 1988 team surrendered a school-record 448 points.
It's part of the reason why this K-State team could be on the verge of allowing four 50-point games in a single season for the first time in the program's history.
Kansas and Missouri have never put 50 points on K-State in the same season. But the Tigers, 7-2 and 3-2, could give it a shot when the teams meet for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday at Faurot Field, which will be televised regionally by Fox Sports Net.
Missouri ranks fourth nationally in points (45.6) and sixth in total yardage (514.1) behind the nation's sixth-ranked passing attack (358.3 yards).
Missouri needed some late-game heroics to escape Baylor with a 31-28 win last weekend and shares one common opponent with the Wildcats. One week after K-State suffered a 14-13 loss at Colorado, the Tigers shutout the Buffaloes 58-0 in Columbia for the first blanking by any team in a league game since 2005.
"(Missouri) has the curse of having a lot of good weapons and having to use them all," Prince said on Monday. "For us, we've got to play really sound defense, disciplined and tackle. The missed tackles are where we've got to start and our alignment have been very sound, but when we've gotten into the gap where the ball carrier is we haven't made the tackle."
Sound familiar? Prince has said as much numerous times before.
At a time when teams aim to be primed to put their best product on the field, the Wildcats' defensive stock continues to plummet under second-year defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar.
K-State currently ranks 107th in scoring defense (33.7 points) and 108th in total defense (444.7 yards) -- numbers that bulge to 42.4 points and 504.0 yards in Big 12 games.
Sure, Big 12 teams as a whole are putting up and allowing gobs of points and yardage at an alarming rate. But K-State is the only team in the league to surrender three 50-point games and five 500-yard performances this season.
"I knew going into this year we were going to need to improve defensively," Prince said. "We haven't done that. We've shown glimpses of it. We've shown at times when we could do it, but we haven't consistently performed the way we would like."
After K-State allowed just 17 points in the first 55 minutes during a 44-30 win at Texas A&M on Oct. 11, it gave up just 14 points and held the Buffaloes scoreless in the second half. Fourth-ranked Oklahoma raced to 55 points, its most in school history in a first half. Then the Sooners managed only a field goal in the final two quarters.
These instances, each of them, provided hope to a unit clawing for sunlight.
Then Kansas led 31-0 at the half. And once again -- during game nine, no less -- it came down to personnel not executing their duties.
What can be done?
"There are a couple of things you can do," Prince said. "Ultimately, you've got to be able to put guys into the game that know what to do and how to do it and then expect and demand them to do it. There's peer accountability there. There's coach accountability. There are all of those kinds of things.
"Sometimes when a player gets out of position, it's not a blatant disregard and neglect, it's that the offense is doing something to breakdown his keys or reads. If you're not disciplined with your eyes and with your thought process, then just being a step out of position -- there are a couple of those early runs where literally when you freeze the tape we're 12 inches out of position and that's all that the runner needs."
The topic grows tiresome to frustrated senior defensive end Ian Campbell.
"There shouldn't be any freelancing at this point in time," he said. "There shouldn't be any freelancing in week one, anyway. The assignments are not that difficult from a technical standpoint, whether you're young players or not. Everybody needs to take responsibility for what they do. As the leader of this team, I need to do a better job of correcting what guys aren't doing right.
"Some of the things that I'll do or that we'll do as a team to take of this will obviously not be in the public's eye or won't always be directed in a manner toward disrespecting a player who doesn't do well. Nobody is being malicious or doing things in a manner to hurt this team. A lot of times, somebody can be trying to make a play, so to speak, but in actuality, it does hurt the team. Their intentions might be good, but the effect isn't."
Then there's the added effect of takeaways in the equation. And that remains an issue that continues to compound the defensive concerns.
K-State has a league low-tying five interceptions and 10 total takeaways, or one more than Nebraska's league-low nine takeaways this season. Coupled with a league-worst 21 giveaways, it's no secret the Wildcats rank last in the Big 12 in averaging a minus-1.22 turnover margin, which also ranks 114th nationally.
In all, K-State has forced six turnovers in 389 plays from scrimmage in Big 12 games, or an average of one takeaway in every 64.8 plays. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions in league play against a defense that averages one interception in every 61 passing attempts.
"The style in which a lot of people are playing, they're playing a lot of keep away and you can become a little bit undisciplined getting out of your lanes in an effort to get to the ball," Prince said. "Then you can have some very bad things happen off of that. If you play very disciplined football and you sit in your lanes, then you have the opportunity to have guys isolated in space. No matter how all of those things shake out, the bottom line is that when you're in position to tackle, then you're in position to be disruptive on the ball."
It could prove difficult to wrestle the ball from the Tigers, who are tied for No. 1 nationally with just five fumbles this season.
Campbell, who has a team-leading 4.5 sacks this season and 20.5 career sacks, fifth all-time in school history, believes a lack of pressure attributes to the problems.
"An issue with turnovers is tackling and getting to the quarterback," Campbell said. "We're not getting to the quarterback enough where you can get sack fumbles, or more arrant throws. Tackling and putting your face on the ball is often where fumbles are created. We're missing some tackles. We were making some strides there for a while, now we're taking a step backward. When you don't go in there violently and tackle someone, there's a less likely chance of knocking the ball loose."
While the number of "ewwwws" elicited from a high-collision, jaw-jarring hit issued by a K-State defender could be counted on one hand this season, odds are that Chase Daniel could elicit some "ewwwws" of his own in front of his home crowd on Saturday behind his play-making ability and array of pass catchers.
Daniel is 52 of 72 (72.2 percent) passing for 546 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his two meetings against the Wildcats. K-State has had two takeaways (two fumbles) in 145 total plays against the Tigers in the last two seasons.
"This is called the Big 12 for a reason because this is big-time football," Campbell said. "Big-time players are here."
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, who continue to grapple with their defensive troubles, the list of big-time performers and big-time numbers show little signs of slowing down on Saturday.