Why Kansas State football needs to be more effective throwing the ball against Oklahoma
MANHATTAN — For the better part of a year now, Kansas State's passing offense has come under scrutiny.
In year three under coach Chris Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, and with super-senior Skylar Thompson back for a sixth season at quarterback after missing most of 2020 with an injury, were the Wildcats finally ready to turn it loose?
The answer so far, as K-State prepares for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. Big 12 home opener against No. 4 Oklahoma, is a resounding no.
It didn't help that Thompson got hurt again less than a quarter into the second game against Southern Illinois. Besides, the Wildcats were able to skate through nonconference opponents Stanford, SIU and Nevada without airing it out.
But last Saturday at Oklahoma State, the chickens came home to roost.
With OSU bound and determined to shut down the running game and in particular Deuce Vaughn, the Wildcats quickly became one-dimensional and it wasn't pretty.
The Cowboys pulled away late in the first quarter, took an 18-point lead to halftime and held on for a 31-20 victory while limiting K-State to 62 yards rushing. Vaughn, who had eclipsed 100 yards for five straight games dating back to last season, had just 22 on 13 carries.
"When we were down as much as we were down, that's not a good position for us to be in where we're having to throw it," Klieman said. "We've got to be able to throw the football more efficiently and more effectively."
Yes, the Wildcats were down to their third-string quarterback for much of the game and still threw for a season-high 198 yards. But Will Howard and Jaren Lewis were a combined 14 of 31 with one touchdown and one interception.
Klieman said Tuesday that he does not anticipate Thompson being ready to go in the OU game.
K-State's lone offensive score against Oklahoma State came when Lewis, under pressure, found Vaughn near the line of scrimmage for a 55-yard catch and run. The other touchdown came on Malik Knowles' 99-yard kickoff return.
On their way to a 3-0 start, the Wildcats averaged 225.7 yards per game on the ground and just 148.3 through the air. They had 269 rushing yards and attempted just 13 passes in a 38-17 victory over Nevada.
While content to keep the ball on the ground against the Wolf Pack, Klieman said at the time that the Wildcats would have to open up the offense at some point. That they were unable to do so against Oklahoma State proved problematic, and they face another stingy run defense Saturday in OU, which allows just 74.3 yards per game.
"They're worrisome, without question, and it's a combination of a lot of things," Klieman said of the passing numbers. "It's us designing some things to get guys open against specific coverages. It's us getting open.
"I don't care if it's me against you, it's just me getting open and not allowing you to be grabbing and holding me, and us making sure that we protect long enough so that we can get the ball out."
A month into the season, K-State is dead last in the Big 12 in both passing yards with 160.8 per game and in passing efficiency. They rank No. 118 out of 130 FBS schools nationally.
Nobody would benefit more from a consistent passing threat than Vaughn, not only in the run game, but also as a receiver out of the backfield.
"That's something that we talk about every single day and we work on every single day," Vaughn said. "And it's not just a culmination of just the passing game.
"It comes down to the blocking, the pass protection and getting open. Just a team collective that we all need to get better at."
K-State has been waiting for wide receivers Knowles and Phillip Brooks, now juniors, to come into their own. Brooks leads the team with 11 catches for 170 yards and Knowles has nine for 151 yards and a touchdown, but only Brooks ranks in the top 20 in the Big 12, tied for 18th.
Vaughn, who led the team in both rushing and receiving last year, has 10 receptions.
While they hope to get more production from Knowles, Brooks, senior Landry Weber and others, Klieman didn't lay the blame at their feet alone.
"It's not just the wide receivers," he said. "We have to design some things better for them from a coaching standpoint to get the ball out maybe a little bit quicker. We've got to protect a little bit better."
Weber, who caught one pass for 11 yards on K-State's opening drive at Oklahoma State, said the Wildcats simply have to keep plugging away.
"We've just got to continue to execute, and I would say just make the tough plays," he said. "I thought against OSU there were some plays that were tough plays for sure, and you've just got to try and make them.
"Catches where you've got a defender on you but you still catch it. There's good (defensive backs) in this league, and continue to create separation and make those tough plays."
All four of K-State's opponents so far lined up to stop the run first, but Oklahoma State was the first to hold the Wildcats under 200 yards on the ground.
"Oklahoma State probably had better players than the other three teams did, but we've seen nine guys in the box, 10 guys in the box, and we were able to rush the football," Klieman said. "We've got a long season ahead of us, so we have to find ways, and we have to continue to design more things.
"We have to continue to be more competitive on getting off the line of scrimmage so that we have more time to throw. It's no secret, we have to continue to improve offensively."