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November 11, 2011

What to Watch: Needing a pass rush

Teams with 7-2 records aren't invincible against frustration. It happens. And when the losses come in succession, it can creep in at an accelerated rate. Allowing 1,022 passing yards over the course of two games probably doesn't help things, either. So you'll have to excuse Kansas State defensive back Allen Chapman decision to vent.

"Part of it is the d-line," Chapman said of his team's struggles against the pass. "We can only guard people for so long."

His words won't please Coach Bill Snyder, but that doesn't make them any less true. In the opinion of the statistics, Kansas State's pass rush has become a liability. The Wildcats have registered just 16 sacks this season, and haven't come up with one since the first quarter of an Oct. 22 win over Kansas.

Texas A&M at No. 17 Kansas State
Texas A&M boasts the Big 12's fourth-most potent rushing offense, but will enter Saturday's game with the Wildcats without running back Christine Michael, a one-time Doak Walker Award candidate who was lost to injury a week ago. The Aggies are not without another elite-level ball carrier, though, as senior Cyrus Gray is perfectly capable of being an every down back. K-State ranks second in the Big 12 against the run, however, and should find some success slowing the A&M ground game.
The book on K-State's offense was published weeks ago, and there's no reason to expect anything other than a healthy dose of quarterback Collin Klein carrying the football. The junior signal-caller has found success running in nearly every game this season and is likely to do so again against an A&M defense that is surrendering more than 200 rushing yards per game.
K-State has surrendered more than 500 passing yards in consecutive games, but the offenses it was dealing with need to be considered. Whether or not the gaudy numbers were a product of the competition will likely be decided this weekend, as the Aggies are sure to test the Wildcat secondary early and often.
Aside from a costly interception, Collin Klein looked to take positive steps throwing the ball in last week's loss to Oklahoma State. The junior finished the contest with 231 passing yards, and the 45 points the Wildcats scored can at least partially be attributed to the his developing arm. Klein still isn't exactly a weapon through the air, but Texas A&M, which ranks ninth in the league against the pass, should provide hurdle he is capable of clearing.
Led by return man Tyler Lockett, K-State's special teams have found solid footing. The problems that plagued the Wildcats in the third facet of the game early in the season appear to have been smoothed over, but Texas A&M has been equally as solid. Aggie place kicker Randy Bullock has missed just three times this season and is 8 for 10 from beyond 40 yards.
Kansas State by 4

K-State hasn't picked up a sack in 219 passing attempts and has only notched three in the last 227. Even for a defense that rarely blitzes, the numbers are troubling. Snyder tries to play down the significance, but even he won't tell you the stats are to be ignored completely.

"We'd like to be a better pass-rush team," Snyder said on Tuesday. "At the end of the day, it falls back on that, but I think the effort is good. I'm not unhappy with (the defensive front)."

To think it gets easier from here would be a fallacy. Texas A&M doesn't possess the lauded passing attack of the Sooners or the Cowboys, but the task this weekend is still daunting, especially with K-State's last two performances now in the Aggies' film room.

A&M threw the ball 63 times against the same Oklahoma front that sacked K-State's Collin Klein on seven occasions. Texas A&M's offense may be more balanced than the ones K-State has run up against in the previous two weeks, but Coach Mike Sherman isn't going to ignore what now looks like a massive tactical advantage.

"That fact we've give up 900-something yards passing the last two games Texas A&M is watching the same tape that I'm watching," Snyder said. "They're going to throw the ball. There's no doubt about that.

"They're not going to bypass the pass just to run the football."

Maybe it by design and maybe not, but no defensive linemen were made available for comment this week. K-State's linebackers were off limits, too. Instead, members of the secondary were left to evaluate the performance of the front line, but not all were willing to show Chapman's exact level of frustration, but it wasn't exactly a back-patting session, either.

"It's a mutual kind of thing," cornerback Nigel Malone said. "If they don't put pressure on the quarterback, we still have to cover. Of course a pass rush makes it easier for us, but I'm not going to complain about it. I'm just going to go out and play football."

Nine games into the season, the question is have the last two games of air raids been the product of NFL-bound quarterbacks and wide receivers doing what they do, or an exercise in exposing Kansas State's greatest defensive soft spot?

Snyder, as he does on most things, has a hypothesis.

"The teams that are throwing the ball for all these ungodly numbers have been doing it to everyone," he said. "It's not just like all of a sudden they've arrived in the passing game against Kansas State."

The last time reporters spoke to a member of the squad's defensive line was after K-State's narrow loss to Oklahoma State. Even then, though, minutes after an earthquake shook the stadium and the interview room, the task at hand was clear.

"We accepted the challenge at the beginning of the spring and we still accept it as a defensive unit," tackle Vai Lutui said. "We just need to get better with pass rushing. Hopefully, slowly but surely we'll get there."

But with just three games left to play and bowl pecking order on the line, there's no time for "slowly and surely" anymore.

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