Kansas State led the nation in scoring defense and total defense after its first two games.
The problem? The impressive numbers came against FCS Eastern Kentucky and Kent State from the MAC.
"They didn’t give us much credit after we played well the first two nonconference games," said Wildcats safety Tysyn Hartman. "People didn’t expect us to play well against Miami."
The reason? Kansas State had one of the nation's worst defenses a year ago. They were one of just two teams to give up 3,000 yards rushing and ranked 106th nationally in team defense.
After the strong start against weak competition, there was reason to doubt how long it would be before Kansas State slipped down the national rankings.
Last week, though, the Wildcats gave up just three first-half points to Miami and won the game with a goal-line stand.
"A week ago, they were in a similar situation with the exception of the game wasn’t on the line, but the shutout was, and played as well at that time and had a great goal-line stand," said coach Bill Snyder. "I think it’s given them a great deal of confidence."
This week, an even tougher test awaits Kansas State in its conference opener against Baylor. Slow the red-hot Bears offense, and nobody will doubt the change from 2010 to 2011.
"We struggled last year. It was one of the big concerns of the offseason and we got better and better as the offseason progressed, and really, I don’t think people expected us to play this well," Hartman said. "We’ve been flying under the radar for awhile, but if we put up the numbers we did in the first few games, I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore."
K-State couldn't ask for a better test. Baylor comes into Saturday's game with a quarterback that's shined as one of the brightest stars of the season, and an offense that's outscoring every team in college football but Georgia Tech and Oregon.
"Hopefully we can change that up a little bit, but he’s hot right now. He’s playing great football and then he has great weapons around him," Hartman said. "It’s not really about who we’re playing, it’s about us getting better. As long as we’re getting better week in and week out, that means we can beat anybody and that showed up last week when everybody counted us out."
The change started in the offseason. Last season's struggles were obvious, and the season ended with Syracuse's Delone Carter rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Pinstripe Bowl, a Kansas State loss. Goal No. 1 in the offseason was to get faster, a weakness a defense can't afford in the wide-open Big 12 where offenses seek to take advantage of space and athletic ability.
"You can’t stop the run unless you have all 11 guys pursuing to the ball, and just training secondary to trigger it and get down there on the run and that’s really helped," Hartman said.
The defense also added juco transfer Nigel Malone, who now leads the team in interceptions and former blue-chip recruit Arthur Brown. Brown, a former Miami Hurricane, has nine more tackles than any other Wildcat.
"He really moves at a different speed than everybody else. If you’ve got a chance to watch him, really just instincts how fast he gets to the ball and he doesn’t miss tackles," Hartman said. "Once he gets you wrapped up, I mean, you’re going down."
Snyder credits another year of experience and maturity for players like Hartman and cornerback David Garrett, as well as sophomores Ty Zimmerman and Tre Walker, who won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week after making three tackles in last week's game-winning goal-line stand.
"We’ve gotten a little bit faster. We’ve played a bit better up front. We’ve gotten more sizeable and quicker linebackers," Snyder said. "Our secondary certainly has gained experience as well and has been reasonably responsible. There’s just a number of things and if you had to identify one, you probably would say the experience factor and the maturity factor combined would probably give us a little reason to believe we’re a little better."
How much better? We'll find out Saturday.