How Iowa State's defensive success has impacted Kansas State — on both sides of the ball

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — When Chris Klieman and his Kansas State staff decided to switch defensive schemes during the offseason, they looked for pointers from several trusted coaching colleagues.

They also watched other teams that had enjoyed success employing a three-man front, in particular Iowa State, the Wildcats' opponent this week.

"Yeah, you bet," Klieman said. "We did watch Iowa State. We watched them a lot anyway."

And with good reason. The Cyclones not only lead the Big 12 in total defense, but rank third nationally, allowing just 234.2 yards per game. They're also in the top 10 against both the run and the pass.

"This is their fourth or fifth year in the system, and so they're doing some things a lot differently than we are," Klieman said of the Cyclones. "But without questions, their success in this league, there's a number of teams that have had some three down (linemen) success in this league to try to eliminate some of the (run-pass option) game.

Iowa State linebackers Mike Rose and O'Rien Vance pressure Northern Iowa quarterback Will McElvain during their Sept. 4 game in Ames, Iowa.

"That's the number one reason why people are doing it, is to eliminate some of the RPO game."

Wayne Jones, who made the switch from safety to strong-side linebacker in the Wildcats' new 3-3-5 alignment, acknowledged that Iowa State was on their watch list during the transition.

"Iowa State, Baylor … there were several teams that run the three-down defense that we've watched film on, just to see how a guy at this position is doing," he said. "Even teams in the NFL that run it, like the (Carolina) Panthers."

So far, the Wildcats have had mixed results with the new look, holding down nonconference opponents Stanford, Southern Illinois and Nevada on the way to a 3-0 start, but struggling against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in dropping their first two Big 12 games.

But while the jury remains out on the defensive change, it could have some unintended short-term benefits this week — for the K-State offense. Going against a similar defense on a daily basis has given the Wildcats a new perspective on Iowa State.

"In years past, playing these guys is a very unique defense," K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson said of facing the Cyclones' three-man front. "It's different than your traditional 4-3 structure type of stuff, so whenever we did play these guys, throughout the week, scout team-wise you're seeing pictures that you don't see very often.

"It's kind of hard for the scout team to simulate those pictures because it's just different. For us — myself and the offense — to have so many reps banked against this style of defense throughout fall camp and even throughout the season we still have seven-on-seven, good-on-good (so) we still continue to see those pictures."

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The offensive line also has benefitted.

"Up front, playing center, it's a big difference when you're used to playing (against) a four-man front and you don't have a big nose guard in front of you, right on top of you, every day," said center Johnson. "So being able to get all those reps in the spring and fall has made me a lot more comfortable playing against that defense, (identifying) that defense in the run game and in pass protection.

"We'll see how it goes Saturday, but we're definitely more comfortable with the scheme as far as people running an Okie front against us. We've just got to execute and take all the banked reps that we have from the spring and fall camp and throughout this season playing against our defense and execute on Saturday."

The fact that the Wildcats have had an extra week to prepare for the Cyclones doesn't hurt either — neither team played last Saturday — but Thompson said the new familiarity with a three-man front is an even greater advantage.

"It's not like a foreign language going into this week," Thompson said. "We have a good feeling where they're going to be at and how they're going to play things, and I think that helps us game plan-wise going into the game, more so than years past.

"I know our receivers and everybody, we have a good feel of where their guys are going to be, which gives us confidence in our game plan."