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K-State's D must prevent offense
By Marc Connolly

KANSAS CITY -- What Kansas State giveth, Kansas State taketh away.

The defense that helped turn Josh Heupel into a legitimate Heisman candidate on Oct. 14 is the same unit that stands in the way of his claiming the bronzed figurine one week from Saturday's Big XII Championship Game (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) at Arrowhead Stadium. You don't need a computer system to know that if Oklahoma's senior quarterback is taken out of the equation, Sooner colors will not be en vogue on South Beach come January.

The all-out, kamikaze, kill-the-blond-kid mission the Wildcat defense employed against Heupel in Manhattan was a travesty. Kansas State racked up four sacks and 10 knockdowns against the lefty gunslinger, but he was never intimidated, confused or lacking in control. In fact, it was Heupel's intuitive audibling and Cool Hand Luke impresario in carrying out his reads under duress that enabled him to torch the Men in Purple for 374 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-37 passing, an astounding 78 percent completion rate.

Jerametrius Butler
Cornerback Jerametrius Butler is the best cover-man in K-State's secondary.

Utilizing an uncanny ability to release the ball on target against the blitz while in the midst of his five-step drop, Heupel proportionally distributed the pigskin, as six of his weapons caught at least three passes. Antwone Savage was the biggest extension of Heupel's dagger with 7 receptions for 116 yards, including that 74-yard score on OU's first drive of the second half that proved to be the game-winner in a 41-31 triumph for the Sooners.

It left a trail of impressed Wildcats, who were amazed at this type of execution level at a foreign stadium that has always been dubbed as a snakepit.

"I really think he handles it better than anyone else does, and his receivers handle it well to," said safety Jon McGraw. "They know where to check, where to be. They just make a great team, and get the ball off in a hurry when he has pressure in his face."

When you make your living on the blitz, it's safe to say that OU isn't the easiest group to prepare for. Sitting calmly -- any more so and there'd be need for a coroner -- in front of the national media at Friday's pregame press conference at Arrowhead, 12th-year K-State head man Bruce Snyder revealed the game plan for his defense.

"We're gonna try to drop 12 (into coverage)," joked Snyder. "And if there are no flags, we're going for 13."

In all seriousness, his defense is a proud unit that ranks second in the nation in total defense, having allowed a mere 266.5 yards on average per game throughout their 10-2 campaign. Snyder was cagey in alluding to the type of sets Heupel might be faced with, but he has been firm all week in getting his point across that the overall philosophy, look and personnel will not change.

"We're a program that's kind of engrained in certain things, and Oklahoma is as well," said Snyder. "I don't think we can make a lot of wholesale changes. We have to do what we do, but I do know this: whatever we do has to be better than last time. We had a very difficult time with that offense."

With five blowout victories posted by the then-eighth-ranked Sooners, the coaching staff at K-State didn't have a lot to go on as far as how Heupel would respond to their ferocious pass rush and blitz schemes. Fast forward six weeks later and any college football fan could tell you the OU strikeforce has been conspicuously normal against below normal teams.

"I've seen people do a lot of different things against that offense," Snyder said, mentioning Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. "Obviously, some defenses have had success against it and some have not."

The relative success that Oklahoma State (lost 12-7) and Texas Tech (lost 27-13) enjoyed the past two games came from dropping eight or nine men back into coverage to force Oklahoma's dart-thrower to dink his way down the field. Not a bad move against a quarterback that has a penchant for the long ball and against an offense that has a very good back in Quentin Griffin.

"I wouldn't necessarily argue with that -- it being the best way to defend against it," said Snyder. "There are safeguards against that type of approach."

And he'll use them, but don't expect to get a lesson in prevent defense and a "keep the ball in front of you" game plan. Yes, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will counteract Oklahoma's offensive mastermind Mike Mangino with some new packages and more concealed blitzes as seen in the NFL. But most of the focus is on executing, this time, on what they do well, and that's swarm the football, win the battle in the trenches, and get to the quarterback.

"It still gets down to executing," said a business-like Bob Stoops on Friday when asked about the probability of K-State changing from man to zone coverage. "We're ready if they do it. They'll probably do it some, but they won't wholesale change. They didn't get here doing that. They'll stick with what they have for the most part, but they'll mix it in some."

"I think we're going to stick pretty close to our game plan from the first game. There really weren't any fallacies in that plan," said McGraw, a junior. "We just had some miscommunications on defense, some guys not knowing where they were supposed to be, which really hurt us. That's what we're going to try to fix this week."

Most of those changes McGraw alluded to involve the linebacking corps and members of the secondary. When it comes to terrifying the man under center, there's no need for worry. Behind two fabulous rush ends -- Chris Johnson (11 sacks) and Monty Beisel (10) -- they have tallied 37 sacks.

"They are very good," said Stoops. "They play hard and they play tough. Without question, that defensive line is one of the better defensive lines you'll see."

Even on downs when they rush just the front four, Heupel won't be able to sit back there like he's playing everyone-go-long, two-hand-touch football.

Mario Fatafehi
Mario Fatafehi has history with Josh Heupel, when they were teammates at Utah's Snow Junior College.
"They did a pretty nice job on four-man rushes," said Snyder of his D-line. "Though they (Johnson and Beisel) are somewhat limited because of double teams. I'm gonna swat 'em in the fanny a bit."

If Oklahoma is forced to waste a tight end or back to safeguard against the D-ends, then one of the major battles is already won. Heupel and Co. won't be staring at more zone coverage than a Temple basketball opponent, nor will their eyes bulge due to seeing single coverage out wide to allow for the linebackers and safeties to find different seams leading to the pocket.

Kansas State's quest to take away the will to live for Boomer Sooner Nation hinges on its D-line winning individual matchups in passing situations and a simple skill known as tackling. The Wildcats have the chess pieces on defense, a quasi-home field advantage that is aided by expected strong winds and possible snow, and time. Time away from their mid-October train-wreck. Time as far as the two weeks they've had to prepare for the No. 1 Sooners. And time to fine-tune their defensive juggernaut into a machine built to withstand any offense, no matter what format or package.

"Good football teams are going to play well against any offense," said Snyder. "Since it is later in the season, we should be able to defend any offense."

Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online

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