It's an issue for West Virginia and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson as they prepare for a K-State program that has been fueled by such. The last four series contests in a row have come in Big 12 play, and featured discouraging outcomes in which KSU wasn't as talented, but still emerged victorious.
It's been a trademark under head coach Bill Snyder, the 75-year old instilling direction and order into a perennial bottom feeder that has morphed the team into among the most consistent in the league. The very nature of K-State's style of play partially dictates what opponents can do to counter, and forces the kind of focused mentality and controlled physicality that tends to break down as play progresses. The very methodical style chips away at the fundamental base play after play, series after series. In the end, the idea is that Kansas State outhits and outlasts foes, both in effort and execution.
"They do not beat themselves," Gibson said. "They do not make mistakes. They are solid in what they do and they don't turn the ball over a lot. All the way around they are a solid football team, probably the most disciplined one in the Big 12."
Not that things have been perfect for Snyder. Then- No. 9 Stanford held KSU to just 13 points in the lone legit foe thus far faced, and the Wildcats have surprisingly struggled with penalties this season. Kansas State has racked up 22 penalties for 173 yards, an average of nearly nine flags per game for 70 yards when one considers K-State has played just 2.5 games with the latter half of the 35-0 win over Missouri State cancelled due to weather. But the 'Cats have also hit for almost 200 rushing yards per game, while quarterback Jesse Ertz has completed 31-of-55 passes for 418 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He also leads the team in rushing at 145 net yards, and an average of 5.8 yards per carry in an offense that values QB power.
"They invented it," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We'll run it, but not like they do.
Few schools have. What also benefits Kansas State is that they mix in other options off the power, including the ability to pull up and throw to the slants, or to dump the ball off just behind the linebackers if they bite to hard within the run game. Add in the difficulties of matching their strength up front, along with KSU's penchant for avoiding turnovers, and it creates a long, demanding game with a major reliance on proper fits in the run game.
"We have to play better," Gibson said of a unit that allowed 280 rushing yards - and 521 overall - to a BYU team that also got behind the pads and downhill running the ball. "That's the number one thing. And two, we have to be more consistent. We will go through lulls where we will be OK for awhile, then we give up something and get rattled. I think it goes back to counting on a lot of guys who haven't played a lot of football right now. The other thing nobody has talked about are the injuries we have had. Losing Dravon (Askew-Henry), that's a big hit. Then you lose a guy like (cornerback Antonio) Crawford in the middle of the game. That's a big hit. Toyous Avery wasn't dressed, that's a big hit.
"Not only are we replacing nine starters, there's a lot of guys we were counting on. It's hard to get these guys on the same page when you have to keep replacing them. It's tough. We want to keep building depth. We have had five linebackers in the rotation right now. DB wise seven to eight guys have played. Six guys up front. We have to continue to do that and avoid injury."
Gibson oversees West Virginia's linebackers, which figure to be especially tested by the myriad of different options within Kansas State's offense. Besides the power rush involving the quarterback and the tailbacks, KSU loves to utilize the run-pass option where the QB can keep or hand it, as well as pull the ball and set-up to throw. It forces extreme discipline in the secondary and at all three linebacker spots, and it often freezes defenders in place to open holes elsewhere in the scheme. It's nothing that K-State hasn't used for years, but it's something undisciplined teams struggle with on a routine basis.
"They love that RPO stuff," Gibson said of the run-pass option. "(The linebackers) are going to have to have their eyes in the right place. The quarterback does a great job hiding the ball and carrying out his fake and pulling it out of the belly of the back and throwing the slant or a pipe route. We are going to have to be disciplined."
Kansas State has been exceptionally effective in the red zone. The Wildcats scored every time they reached the red zone over the final seven games of the 2015 season, and are 16-for-16 this year through the three games, with 14 touchdowns. Just one of those, however, was against Stanford, and it remains to be seen how solid KSU really is there in terms of finishing drives against better opposition than Missouri State and Florida Atlantic. West Virginia hopes to slow Ertz in the run game, and force K-State to get behind the chains and throw. That tips the scales in the Mountaineers' favor in terms of down and distance and pocket pressure possibilities.
"I don't know if they want to run the Ertz kid as much as they have run their quarterbacks in the past," Gibson said. "We are preparing for it. Giving up the runs we gave up last week, we will have to keep preparing for it because they are going to attack us that way. It goes back to where we try and overload on the running back and the quarterback gets us and you put too many guys up and they are going to throw the ball. It's a chess match at this point. We have to keep our guys locked in.
"The way I used to be able to control that to at least slow it down a bit was to blitz it. There were times the other day we dialed up some good things, then it got to the point where I was almost afraid to blitz to leave our guys out there one-on-one on an island with big wideouts. It's a struggle from call-to-call, week-to-week, day-to-day getting this thing pieced back together."