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October 13, 2011

What to Watch: Road work

You won't find any earrings or gold necklaces in the Vanier Football Complex. Bill Snyder has rules prohibiting his players from wearing such things. And while there are no bylaws outlawing fond memories of Lubbock, Texas, those are equally as hard to come by. The 72-year old veteran head coach has won there just once, and players on Kansas State's current roster will conjure up memories of the 66-14 beat down the team took there in 2009 when asked about the West Texas town.

To K-State, the place is Amityville with tumbleweeds.

Since the formation of the Big 12 Conference, Snyder-coached teams have been outscored 165-66 in Lubbock and have managed to notch just one victory, a 13-2 win in 1997. The three losses have come by sizable margins and sometimes at inopportune times. A 59-20 loss in 2005 sparked a four game losing streak, while a 2001 loss to the Red Raiders knocked the Wildcats out of the national polls.

No. 17 Kansas State at Texas Tech
K-State's biggest advantage when it comes to defending the Texas Tech rushing attack won't be created by its defense. Instead, the fact that the Red Raiders have lost tailback Eric Stephens, who ranked second in the conference in rushing, to injury holds that title. The offensive line his replacement will run behind is large, but the Wildcat defense has shown itself to be talented enough to present any offensive front with a formidable challenge.
No defense has shown the ability to stop quarterback Collin Klein from running the football up the middle, and the junior seems to be getting more involved in the rushing attack each game. Tailback John Hubert seemed to take a stride against Missouri last week, finishing with 126 yards. And if he and Klein are both finding room to run in Lubbock this weekend, Bill Snyder's ball-control-based offense will really take hold.
Tech quarterback Seth Doege has been impressive as a junior, throwing for 1,706 yards while only tossing one interception. His 71.4 completion percentage is the best by a Red Raider quarterback through five games since 2007, and he completed 44 passes just last week. The test here will be a stern one for a K-State defense that has found ways to come up with big plays when need be, but has also had its share of momentary lapses.
Despite his running ability, nobody is going to mistake Collin Klein for Steve Young. Klein is yet to throw for more than 200 yards in a game this season, and while he's show a knack for avoiding mistakes, racking up large yardage totals isn't exactly his specialty. He'll be well-served to keep his passes short in an effort to add balance to the offense and allow his team to move the chains through the ground game. For Klein, this weekend will all about avoiding mistakes.
K-State completed four quarters of football without a notable special teams blunder last week, and that should be considered an accomplishment considering how the season started. The Wildcats will need to prove the changes are here to stay, however, as the team flirted with disaster in the third facet of the game through the first four weeks. Field position becomes even more important when your offense is predicated on ball control, so the performance of punter Ryan Doerr will likely play a vital role in how K-State fares going forward.
K-State by 3

This time around, though, there's reason for some measure of optimism for the visiting team. Snyder will take on a new Texas Tech coaching staff led by Tommy Tuberville, a regime he is yet to face, and Red Raider running back Eric Stephens, who has already accounted for 570 yards and eight touchdowns this season, won't be suited up due to injury. But for everything that has changed in the Wildcats' personal Twilight Zone, some things remain constant.

"This will be the fastest tempo we have played against," Snyder said on Tuesday. "The previous couple of weeks have been beneficial as we prepare to get lined up, get the calls in, and understand what we are doing before the snap of the ball."

Freshman center B.J. Finney was a high school kid on a hunting trip the last time K-State played at Jones AT&T Stadium, and while he didn't see the 52-point seal-clubbing his team took first hand, the lifelong Wildcat fan is familiar with the larger struggles the 2009 game represented.

"I know it has been hard on K-State down there," he said. "I haven't really been told any details about it, but every time you go down there it is a clean slate; a new shot to do what you want to do."

And what K-State would like to do this time around, is exorcize a few demons while notching yet another upset win.

Despite entering Saturday's contest as an underdog in sports books everywhere, this shot might just be as good as any. K-State will enter Saturday's game at 5-0 and as the No. 17 team in the country. So when Snyder's confident Wildcats, which have already grabbed one win in a celebrated road environment against Miami, line up against an unranked Tech squad coming off a home loss to Texas A&M, the circumstances will be a sharp contrast to the ones that surrounded the last meeting.

"(The program) has made huge strides since then," junior wide receiver Chris Harper said. "The mentality is the main thing that has changed. We have gotten better athletes since then, but the mentality is the main thing."

Inside the cloud of cautious optimism that consumes the locker room, sits just one man who has found success in Lubbock. These days, he stands on the sideline playing the role of graduate assistant, but in 1997, Jonathan Beasley was wearing a helmet and lining up under center as K-State knocked of the Red Raiders in Texas.

What does he remember? Not much. Just the fact that the usual starter, Michael Bishop, was largely ineffective against Texas Tech that afternoon, leading to his benching and the insertion of Beasley. Once in the game, Beasley was serviceable, and ultimately did what no other K-State quarterback since has been able to: Win in Lubbock.

"The only thing I remember is that I had the longest run I had here that day," Beasley said, alluding to a late, 33-yard touchdown scamper that helped the Wildcats secure the 13-2 victory.

That memory won't help the Wildcats this weekend, though. Instead, Beasley's glory-day story is firmly positioned in the past, the same place this year's squad hopes to put the program's struggles in Lubbock.

"They have a very active fan base and student section there, but it still goes back to the same thing," Snyder said. "If you have the maturity, focus and discipline to keep the game where it belongs, then all the other things shouldn't be a distraction."

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