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September 14, 2012

Game Up Close: Fine tuning

Every day is about fine-tuning to Kansas State and head coach Bill Snyder. It's about improving the mistakes of yesterday and getting better. Whether it's in a practice, a scrimmage or a game, the goal is to further develop what they do each and every day.

Since those practices and scrimmages are closed to the media and just about every other patron that's not on the Wildcats' roster, the only true examination of improvement is during games on Saturday's.

After thumping the Miami Hurricanes 52-13 last weekend, it was apparent K-State got better in a hurry. Snyder even admits his team was better in all facets of the game. They were better on offense, defense and special teams. Sure, the 21st year head coach still saw a plethora of mistakes that need correction, but they were better. In the process, they sent a message to everyone that witnessed the nationally televised game. K-State is definitely not messing around this year.

The 15th-ranked Wildcats host the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. It's not the high-profile matchup that last week presented, but it's still a chance to improve. After all, it is the final test before they start a grueling Big 12 Conference schedule.

"It's another important step because it is the next one," quarterback Collin Klein said. "We were playing well and better than last week, but there are some things we got to work on."

This weekend, the Wildcats will use their last non-conference game to fine-tune each unit before their showdown in Norman against the No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners.

Honestly, there is nothing about the Mean Green, on paper or on film that should immediately scare the Wildcats this weekend. If K-State was able to physically handle a young, but athletic Miami team, they should easily take care of business against North Texas. However, anything is possible and they must maintain the same focus and discipline that led to two lop-sided victories to start the season.

"It's always a challenge to keep your mind on where you are at and not wander to a host of things," Klein said. "It's a battle, but it's a battle overall and not just certain weeks."

If the Wildcats overcome that battle, which they likely will, the stage is set for this team to fine-tune each unit.

Let's start with Klein and the offense.

In order for Klein to fine-tune his game, he must repeat the hot start he had last week against the Hurricanes. He must assert himself in the passing attack and get his wide receivers involved early in the contest. Klein continues to show growing confidence in the pocket this season and a weaker Mean Green secondary is a nice opportunity for him to boost that another notch higher. When he calls his own number, which he shouldn't have to very often, he must protect himself from getting too banged up. And if he shows the 9-for-11-like efficiency he did last weekend, the offense should click on all cylinders.

In the running game, running back John Hubert simply needs to continue to do what he has done to start the season. In the first two games, Hubert has run with a purpose. He has hit the holes created for him with certainty and quickness. If he does that again, there is no reason that Hubert cannot have a third-straight 100-yard performance. When senior Angelo Pease gets into the game, he will have to show the same assertiveness that Hubert does and attack the gaps with power.

The Mean Green's confidence is sky high after an impressive 352 rushing yard performance against Texas Southern last weekend. Both junior Brandin Byrd and freshman Antoinne Jimmerson eclipsed the 130-yard mark as they cruised to a 35-7 win over the Tigers. However, North Texas was held to just 76 yards on 35 carries in their season opening loss to No. 3 LSU. Their offensive line is surprisingly good, but Kansas State is coming off a stellar performance themselves. They held the speedy backs of Miami to only 40 total rushing yards. Look for more of the same this week from the Wildcats.
Advantage: K-State
Behind the legs of junior running back John Hubert and quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats are averaging 306 yards per game on the ground through the first two games. That's good enough for sixth overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wildcats will keep their offense fairly vanilla this week, but they will still run the ball the majority of the time. It will be hard for North Texas to slow down this tough rushing attack with the way K-State's offensive line has been dominating the line of scrimmage.
Big Advantage: K-State
With only 45 passing attempts after two games this season, it is clear that North Texas' offense is centered around the run game. Also, junior quarterback Derek Thompson has not been very accurate when he does air it out, completing only 42 percent of his passing attempts. The Wildcats' secondary is still vulnerable at times, but they improved drastically last week against Miami. This is a perfect game to work their last-minute kinks out before Big 12 play begins.
Big Advantage: K-State
Since Miami couldn't stop the Wildcats from running the football, Collin Klein only threw 11 passes last Saturday. He completed nine passes for 210 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown to sophomore Curry Sexton. He threw one arrant pass that led to his first interception of the season, though. Other than that, his decision-making in passing situations has been good so far. Klein will likely call a low number of pass plays again this week, but the key is to maintain that efficiency to keep the Mean Green from stacking the box.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State's special teams has been outstanding in two games this season. Their coverage on kickoffs has been superb and might be the most underrated aspect of this team. When they are given the opportunity to return kicks, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson have been effective. Anthony Cantele has looked sharp and Ryan Doerr is the starting punter once again after sitting out the season opener with an injury. North Texas has their hands full with this unit.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State is simply playing at a higher level than North Texas is right now. There is no other way around it. The Wildcats made their mark last week by pummeling Miami and they will look to do it to North Texas this week. They have shown a great deal of discipline this season by committing just four penalties in their first two games of the year. The Wildcats know their identity and the Mean Green is still searching for theirs. Bill Snyder has his team focused on the task at hand and will be looking to strike when the opportunity presents itself.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State BY 24.5
As previously mentioned, a weaker secondary could present open opportunities for the wide receiving corps in this matchup. With that, this talented unit will need to exploit and capitalize whenever possible. Chris Harper has been relatively quiet in the first two games and this is a matchup that could help him and Klein get on the same page. Even if the receivers aren't particularly busy this week, there are still some things they can fine-tune. One of those is selling the run. Even when everyone in the stadium knows it is going to be a run, they can work on selling it by running hard, crisp routes or holding blocks downfield.

None of this will be possible if the offensive line has a letdown. This relatively inexperienced unit of Cornelius Lucas, Cody Whitehair, B.J. Finney, Keenan Taylor and Tavon Rooks has been the biggest surprise to start the season. Against Miami, the offensive line completely dismantled the Hurricanes front four. They have been the catalyst to this methodical, yet volatile offense that has scored over 50 points each game. They must continue to win the battle in the trenches for the Wildcats to excel offensively.

Much like the offensive line, the defensive line must win the battle up front as well. North Texas has a surprising good offensive line that could present a challenge for the Wildcats, too. They are a big unit that, in some ways, reminds Snyder of his own team.

"What you find is they are kind of like Kansas State guys," Snyder said. "They roll up their sleeves and go to work. They're blue-collar type youngsters and they work awfully well together."

Snyder adds that North Texas likes to run the football and they put a great deal of emphasis with their offensive line in regards to protection. The Wildcats will need to be committed to winning that battle and disrupting the Mean Green's game plan. North Texas does not throw the ball much, but they are just one of nine teams in the nation to not allow a sack this season. That includes their season opener against No. 3 LSU. Adam Davis and Meshak Williams will be looked to be the first to bring down quarterback Derek Thompson and a repeat of last week's five-sack performance would give this unit a massive lift heading into conference play.

The linebackers, led by the tenacious Arthur Brown have looked strong to start the 2012 campaign. They have not only showed the ability to stop the run, but the ability help in pass protection when the opposition fields four or five wide receivers. It is imperative for them to continue to make progress as they shuffle into various packages and schemes with different personnel.

The Wildcats' secondary showed some signs of weakness during their season opening victory against Missouri State. However, they were vastly improved last week against Miami. It is still early, but the secondary will need to have another solid week to prove they are worthy of being considered a strength rather than a weakness. The absence of safety Ty Zimmerman might disrupt some of their progress as a unit, but they can find a way to establish a presence individually.

The same goes for specialty teams. K-State must continue to stay the course and establish their presence in the kicking game and during kickoff coverage and returns.

Snyder insists that his team take things one day at a time. So the fine-tuning has already started to take place. They just get to show it in front of 50,000 strong on Saturday.

"If we don't make the wholehearted investment to become a better football team today and so on down the road, then you really have no chance," he said. "If we make that investment then you've got a chance no matter who it is."

The Wildcats have clearly made that investment so far. You can see it in their approach to each of the first two games. This game against North Texas is just another step.

"We haven't played our best game yet and that's what we are trying to strive for and that's what we're trying to move towards," Klein said. "This is another opportunity to do that."

Klein's right. This is the chance to have their best game to date by fine-tuning what they have already proved they can do.

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