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October 25, 2012A small lifetime has seemingly passed since a Kansas State defense has swarmed and tackled its way to this spot in the journey. The year was 1998 when the Wildcats last held their first seven opponents to 21 or fewer points. In fact, they did so in nine straight contests.
Times change, as do offensive schemes. But simply put, to this point of the undefeated ride by fourth-ranked K-State, which at 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big 12 Conference, carries aspirations of reaching the program's first appearance in a national title game, no Wildcats' defense has been better game to game at keeping teams out of the end zone in the last 14 years.
K-State finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in three of four seasons prior to 1998, and in four of the next five, as well. In fact, for 10 straight years, the Wildcats ranked among the top-20 stingiest squads in keeping opponents off the scoreboard. The run ended after the 2003 Big 12 Championship season. Since then, the Wildcats haven't come close.
That could change in 2012.
After seven games, K-State ranks 14th in allowing 16.1 points, and joins top-ranked Alabama, No. 3 Florida and No. 5 Notre Dame as the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to hold each of its opponents to 21 or fewer points.
Consider that K-State has sustained its edge within a league that features six other squads that average at least 40 points per contest, and such a feat reveals plenty.
"It's very significant," said K-State 1999 consensus All-America linebacker Mark Simoneau. "It's a different game now."
In that 1998 season, K-State harbored the nation's top-scoring offense in averaging 48.0 points. Texas ranked second in the Big 12 with 36.3 points. Nebraska averaged 31.9 and was the only other league team to average more than 30 points per game.
Over the course of 14 seasons, an offensive evolution has turned the one-time rough 'em, stuff 'em Big 12 into a broad-based, high-octane scoring machine.
Whereas Big 12 teams averaged 44.9 rushes and 23.8 passing attempts per game in 1998, teams in 2012 average 38.7 rushes and 35.1 passing attempts. It's one small illustration of the changing times.
"The offenses are a lot more wide open and they take a lot more chances," Simoneau said. "Our defense (in 2012), we don't do a lot schematically, but what we do, we do very well. That's a testament to the players and coaches with their techniques and executing defenses. It's very impressive.
"When you look at the Big 12, and what goes on week in and week out with all the points that are scored, to be in this position is pretty remarkable."
After K-State, no other Big 12 team currently ranks in the top 25 in scoring defense. Iowa State comes closest at No. 27 in allowing 19.6 points per game.
Already this K-State team is the first in school history to hold two AP top-20 teams to 21 or fewer points in victories during a regular season since The Associated Press began its poll in 1934. Among Alabama, Florida and Notre Dame, K-State is the only squad to accomplish such a feat against a pair of top-20 teams in true road games in 2012.
That's what happens when K-State holds No. 6 Oklahoma to 19 points (27.5 points below its scoring average) for the Sooners' third-fewest points scored in the Bob Stoops era. That's what happens when K-State invades No. 17 West Virginia and holds the Mountaineers to 14 points (31.7 points below its average) for its fewest points at home under Dana Holgorsen.
"Certainly, it just addresses the continued improvement we've made," K-State head coach Bill Snyder said. "We've just gradually gotten a little better and a little better. The more snaps you take, the more variety of schemes that you see, and become acclimated to. When you see something for the first time, it's a little more difficult to respond to than if you've seen it time and time again. It's just the natural happenstance of improvement during the course of the year."
Allowing 14 points, including only one offensive touchdown -- a 5-yard pass from Geno Smith with 7 minutes, 31 seconds remaining -- for the fewest points surrendered by the Wildcats on the road this season, proved monumental.
"To hold West Virginia to zero scores for 52 and a half minutes on defense is a feather in your hat," Snyder said, "but that was last week and it has nothing to do with what happens today."
While K-State has faced Oklahoma (a 24-19 win) and West Virginia (a 55-14 blowout), it still must solve four other offenses in its final five regular season games that average at least 40 points in Baylor (48.0) Oklahoma State (45.7), Texas (44.4) and Texas Tech (42.9).
In the history of the Big 12, only 1996 Nebraska (11 straight games), 1998 K-State (nine) and 2004 Texas (eight) have held opponents to 21 or fewer points in more than seven games to start a season.
K-State has the chance to join that group when it meets the 15th-ranked Red Raiders, 6-1 and 3-1, in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff on FOX at a soldout Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
The Red Raiders have scored fewer than 44 points twice with both occurrences coming in the last four games -- a 24-13 win at Iowa State on Sept. 29, and a 41-20 loss to Oklahoma in Lubbock on Oct. 6.
Texas Tech senior quarterback Seth Doege, who had a career-high seven touchdown passes in a 56-53 triple-overtime thriller at TCU last weekend, shares the FBS record by throwing six touchdowns in three different games this season.
In the Wildcats' 41-34 win in Lubbock last season, Doege completed 43 of 63 passes for 463 yards and one touchdowns and three interceptions. That included a 18-of-29 effort for 165 yards and two interceptions while the Red Raiders managed only a pair of field goals in the second half.
"From last year, I know (the Wildcats) were disciplined in what they did," Doege said. "They played extremely hard and they didn't give up a whole lot of big plays. They try to manipulate you into doing something that you don't want to do, whether it is trying to make too much happen, because you feel like maybe you're struggling when you're moving the ball, but you're not making big plays after big plays.
"They force you to make a mistake or turnover the ball. That's what they thrive on doing."
K-State ranks 23rd in total defense (325.9 yards), including 11th against the run (99.3) and 62nd against the pass (226.6) -- numbers that rank fourth, second and fourth in the Big 12, respectively. But the Wildcats also rank second in the league with 18 sacks, and second with 16 turnovers (eight interceptions and eight fumble recoveries).
It's a testament to a unit guided by first-year defensive coordinator Tom Hayes, who also serves as the defensive secondary coach, along with a staff that includes defensive run-game coordinator and defensive ends coach Joe Bob Clements, interior defensive line coach Mo Latimore, and linebackers coach Mike Cox.
"We're becoming more disciplined," Snyder said. "We're not where we need to be, by any stretch. We're certainly more and more sound, and that comes with a variety of things. Coaches are always going to be able to have a sound structure with what you do. I don't think there's ever been a time when we haven't been sound with our structure. The important thing is for us to be able to teach well enough so that young people can respond to what their responsibilities are and the fundamentals of the game.
"We're getting better and better with that. Our coaches have done a tremendous job coaching fundamentals of the game and a tremendous job of putting our players in as good of a position as they can to be successful. At the end of the day, your players have to respond to that, and they've gotten better and better and better at doing that."
Simoneau and Hayes actually share a history. Hayes served as defensive backs coach for the New Orleans Saints in 2006-07 while Simoneau was on the Saints roster.
"He's done a great job with the guys," Simoneau said. "They're executing their call, which is what you want to do. You can have a thousand different things you can do out there, but if you can't execute in that specific defense against that specific play, it doesn't do you any good."
Equally important to the Wildcats success? They put their collective foot down inside the red zone. K-State ranks 15th nationally and first in the Big 12 in allowing teams to score on only 18 of 26 (69.2 percent) trips inside the 20-yard line, while surrendering 11 touchdowns, seven field goals, and forcing three turnovers.
"They execute and not only are they good," Simoneau said, "but in the red zone, they tighten up and make it difficult on offenses."
And reaching the end zone, too, becomes a challenge.
Of 10 scoring drives allowed by K-State during the Big 12 season, only one -- a 5-play, 42-yard jaunt by Iowa State -- has required fewer than eight plays.
Of eight touchdowns allowed by K-State in the Big 12, only three covered more than six yards.
"We're very confident," K-State senior cornerback Nigel Malone said. "That's the attitude we always have in the red zone, that they're going to have to kick a field goal."
Then there's the big-play capacity, which has been a fleeting proposition for Big 12 opponents.
In the Big 12, K-State has allowed only seven of 273 plays (one-in-39) from scrimmage to gain 20 or more yards. All seven were pass plays.
Additionally, K-State has allowed only one play from scrimmage to gain more than 30 yards. It didn't come against Oklahoma or West Virginia.
It was a 31-yard pass from Dayne Crist to Andrew Turzilli early in the third quarter of a 56-16 thrashing of Kansas in Manhattan.
"That's kind of crazy," All-America candidate and senior middle linebacker Arthur Brown said. "It confirms the goals that we've set have really come forth. We've really been working toward our goals."
As for the last time the defense allowed a run to gain more than 20 yards? It was a 45-yard dash by freshman running back Antoinne Jimmerson. Jimmerson plays for North Texas. K-State played North Texas on Sept. 15.
That was 162 rushing attempts ago.
"One of our goals is to solidify the run game and being able to do that -- a huge element for any offense -- causes trouble for almost any offense," said Brown, who has a team-high 55 tackles, including six for a loss, and one interception. "Just being able to do that has helped us to be successful in other areas."
Four weeks after K-State held Landry Jones to a season-low one touchdown pass and limited the Sooners to a season-low 87 rushing yards and a season low-tying one touchdown, the Wildcats came alive again in their second showdown against an AP top-20 foe on the road.
Smith, who arrived as the Heisman frontrunner, finished with 143 passing yards for his fewest passing yards in 23 games and his fewest ever as a starter at Milan Puskar Stadium. Smith went a NCAA-record 273 consecutive passing attempts without an interception in 2012. He threw two interceptions in a span of six passes against the Wildcats, marking just his fifth time in 33 career outings that he threw multiple interceptions in a contest.
After completing 99 passes for more than 20 yards in his career, Smith failed to complete a pass for longer than 13 yards for his first time as a starter.
"That was definitely big for our defense," Malone said. "We're a confident group, but it's a good feeling that you can hold a guy that's done so many great things over the season to those kinds of numbers. It's a good feeling to know you can help the team out in that way and make sure we don't put pressure on our offense.
"When we all come together, and play how we know we can truly play, we can go out there and do good things."
Malone said that current defensive players, as a form of motivation, have watched highlights of previous standout K-State defenses.
"We'll see some of the highlights of some of those early Lynchmob guys from 1997, 1998 and 1999," he said. "It definitely gets us riled up."
Times and offenses change. Yet Simoneau sees similarities.
"The thing about this defense, it might be against those different types of today's offenses, but the mentality, the toughness and speed to the ball, the way they hit, all of those things, is what you want out of a great defense," he said. "You take pride in Kansas State defenses having that mentality, that toughness, playing fast, being relentless and playing together.
"If everybody is on the same page, you can have a lot of success."
Yes, a lot can change in 14 years.
But behind a propensity for keeping dangerous Big 12 offenses out of the end zone amid this era of fast-moving attacks, a tenacious K-State defense armed with an old-school Mob mentality, finds itself issuing a stamp of its own.