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October 18, 2012Shortly after Kansas State outlasted Iowa State, 27-21, to capture its first victory in Ames since 2003 and continue a nation-leading trend of winning 10 games within a touchdown since 2011, senior wide receiver Chris Harper put the uniqueness of his Wildcats' squad into perspective with the opening BCS Standings poll looming.
As expected, K-State, 6-0, entered in the top 5 of the BCS Standings with a No. 4 ranking for its best debut ever in the poll, trailing No. 3 Oregon by a whisker, and seated behind No. 2 Florida and No. 1 Alabama.
Immersed in a Big 12 Conference that features four of the nation's 10 most potent offenses, anchored by passing attacks average no fewer than 338 yards, the Wildcats thrive and survive largely without what is popularly regarded as flashiness.
But K-State, which joins top-ranked Alabama as the only teams in the Football Bowl Championship Subdivision to remain unbeaten in its first six games in each of the last two seasons, prides itself on virtues that remain a recipe for the Wildcats' success.
"It's our toughness," Harper said immediately after the six-point victory. "We try to be tougher than any other team. We play a different style of football. A lot of those teams maybe in the top 5 or 10 play a flashier style. We just play our style of football and that's what we've done.
"We get the job done. It just looks different."
Stylistically, there likely won't be two offenses more dissimilar in top-20 showdowns Saturday when K-State and its methodical, time-consuming unit, meets the high-octane attack of No. 13 West Virginia, 5-1 and 2-1, for a 6:05 p.m. kickoff during the Wildcats' first visit to Morgantown since 1931.
Geno Smith, the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and two-time national player of the week, leads a Mountaineers' offense that ranks tied for sixth nationally in averaging 543.7 yards, including 384.8 yards though the air, which ranks only behind Baylor and Marshall.
Smith is commonly regarded as the current front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.
Collin Klein, the 2011 first-team All-Big 12 selection as an all-purpose player -- an honor usually given to a skill-position player who is also a return specialist -- handles a unit that churns out 427.5 yards (46th nationally), including 179.0 passing yards (108th).
Klein is commonly regarded as the runner-up to Smith in the Heisman race.
Bottom line? West Virginia's average of 45.7 points ranks seventh; K-State's 40.8 points ranks 15th nationally.
They're different, but they get it done.
"If you can get the ball into the end zone, your offense can look pretty flashy, no matter how you get there," K-State head coach Bill Snyder said earlier this week. "I have an appreciation with the value system of our young guys collectively. It's the mindset that it's not important how it gets there, it's that it does."
And it does. For all of its flashiness, West Virginia averages a touchdown once in every 13.11 offensive plays (36 touchdowns in 472 plays) while K-State reaches the end zone, on average, one in every 13.06 plays (29 in 379).
Conversely, West Virginia opponents average a touchdown once in every 16.2 plays (29 in 472) while K-State opponents find the end zone once in every 37.5 (11 in 413).
That's big, but it does arrive with an asterisks. K-State has yet to face any of the top-four offenses in the league. Starting with West Virginia, it'll face all four in a five-week span with back-to-back home games against Texas Tech (Oct. 27) and Oklahoma State (Nov. 3) and then a date at Baylor (Nov. 17) in its final road contest of the regular season.
"No matter where we are, at Kansas State we believe," junior weakside linebacker Tre Walker said. "We never give up. We believe that we should be where we are. That's what we work hard for. Our hard work has gotten us this far and our hard work is going to take us farther. It's the work we do during the week. We can say we're in the race and Collin is in the race for the Heisman, but we can't sit down and do that.
"We have to keep working."
The proverbial sleeves rolled up, K-State has yet to shy from grinding it out, while mental discipline has seemingly only flourished with each ensuing game, as the Wildcats have won 16 of their last 18 regular season contests. That includes a 10-1 mark in games decided within a touchdown.
"Each week we go through something different. It's all about responding to adversity," said sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett, the 2011 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and first-team Walter Camp All-America selection as the nation's leading kickoff returner. "When things don't go our way, we can't give up and quit. People are depending on us -- the coaches, the fans, and our teammates. It all goes back to doing your part, because you don't want to let your team down, and you don't want to be that person to lose the game.
"It just goes with teamwork, family and being unselfish, and really trying to make that block or that first down."
It's a trait of perseverance that Snyder has seen steadily unfold among a squad that this season features 14 returning starters on offense and defense. Among the constellation of Snyder's 10- and 11-win teams over the years, this group perhaps collectively defines many key ingredients that are necessary to win as well as any.
"There's a positive mindset about our players and it's just grown year in and year out," Snyder said. "We all recognize it certainly was a valuable asset a year ago and up until this point in time as well. It's been steady improvement."
While weeks prior to Halloween, K-State players view their own action/thriller in the form of West Virginia's offense during film study, players hardly appeared spooked, but voiced utmost respect, when asked about the Mountaineers' gaudy statistics, which reveals that only three of their 36 touchdown drives have required more than 4 minutes.
"They throw the ball every play, and you'd love that as a receiver," said Harper, who has a team-high 19 catches for 258 yards and one touchdown. "But I'll take wins, and I look at our win-loss and I look at their win-loss."
Of K-State's 29 touchdown drives, 14 have been engineered in six or more plays, 10 have covered 70 or more yards, and five have consumed more than 4 minutes, including one in each of the fourth quarters against Miami, North Texas and at then-No. 6 Oklahoma.
The Wildcats' brand is affixed to what loyalists commonly refer to as "Snyder Ball."
And the system works.
Consider K-State ranks 15th in scoring offense (40.8 points), 11th in rushing yards (248.5), seventh in turnover margin (plus-1.67), 28th in time of possession (31 minutes, 47 seconds), and second in fewest penalties (3.0 per game).
It's the hallmark gritty, hard-nosed, grind-it-out toughness that relies upon discipline, and that can drive opponents batty. The Wildcats' mindset remains constant on defense and on special teams as well.
"They are probably the most disciplined team I've seen in a long time on all three sides of the ball," second-year West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They're extremely disciplined. They don't make mistakes on any side of the ball, they play with tremendous effort, and they play extremely physical football.
"They have a lot of experience and they're as smart of a football team as I've seen in some time."
No doubt, K-State's journey to this undefeated spot in the season remains unique. Its execution level in such blue-collar statistics is matched only by Alabama. Of 120 teams in the FBS, they are the only two squads that currently rank in the top-25 percentile in each of the five aforementioned departments.
They perhaps exemplify better than most that old-school flavor, a pair of dirt-on-the-elbows blue-collar machines that light-up the scoreboard weekly while simply outworking opponents.
Alabama comes off a 42-10 win in its first visit to Missouri. The Crimson Tide have beaten each of their opponents by at least 19 points this season. No team has scored more than 14 points against them.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban on Monday said, "I was really pleased with the energy, intensity and focus that we came out and started the game with. It's pretty obvious that when we have a high level of focus and attention to detail, we execute well and we play well. When we don't, we can become pretty average.
"We have our nicks and bruises like everybody does at this time of the year, but we need to manage through that."
While some squads grab their track shoes, K-State and Alabama tote jumbo-sized lunch pails when it's time to impose its will.
And the Wildcats and Crimson Tide each harbor one of the 20 most efficient passers in the nation.
Alabama junior A.J. McCarron has completed 89 of 132 passes (67.4 percent) for 1,170 yards and 12 touchdowns and no interceptions with a passer rating of 171.88 that ranks fifth nationally. McCarron has negative-32 yards rushing.
Klein has completed 79 of 118 passes (67.0 percent) for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns and two interceptions. While his passer rating at 159.59 ranks 17th nationally, it ranks second among all FBS quarterbacks that have rushed for at least 500 yards this season.
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel ranks 10th in passing efficiency (162.8) while rushing for 676 yards on 91 carries and 10 touchdowns. Klein has rushed for 510 yards on 98 carries with 10 touchdowns. With 37 rushing touchdowns since the start of last season, Klein needs only two to own the FBS record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in consecutive seasons, a mark shared by Northern Illinois' Stacey Robinson (19 in both 1989 and 1990) and Eric Crouch (20 in 2000, 18 in 2001).
Of Klein's 10 rushing touchdowns this season, five have given the Wildcats the go-ahead score. Arguably none proved bigger than his five-yard run with 13:16 remaining at Oklahoma that provided a 17-13 margin in an eventual 24-19 victory, giving K-State a win over its highest-ranked opponent ever in a true road game.
"It's a process that we're still growing and continue to grow in," Klein said. "I don't know if you can ever say, 'OK, I'm mentally tough enough to play this game.' You want to constantly be growing in that capacity. We stay together when things are rough, or at that time when the scoreboard doesn't say what you want for it to say.
"Like Coach always says, you've just got to keep playing, keep playing and keep playing, until the final tick is off the clock."
To those caught-up in Klein's aura as merely a throwback player, his passing numbers reveal that he connects with a target for 20 or more yards once in every 3.8 completions (21 of 79 completions). Smith gains 20 or more yards once in every 7.0 completions (28 of 196).
"They both can throw the ball," Harper said. "Nobody gives Collin credit for throwing the ball, and his efficiency is really good every week. He's at a 150 passer rating and nobody gives him credit because we don't throw the ball 50 times a game, but we don't need to throw the ball 50 times.
"Our running game is so effective that his throwing gets overshadowed."
But there's a segment of the K-State program that never gets overshadowed. With each passing week, another fellow Big 12 head coach mutters catch words or phrases such as "disciplined," "mistake-free," "hard-nosed" and "physical."
And with each passing week, senior fullback Braden Wilson, one of 28 seniors on the Wildcats' roster, does his part to ensure that his team outworks the competition on the field. The Wildcats' 58-17 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma in Manhattan last season -- the Sooners scored 35-unanswered points in the second half -- provides a portion of such motivation.
That's two out of 72 total quarters in regular-season games that Wilson believes the team collectively fell short.
Wilson traces that remarkable revelation to a change in the program's culture that slowly began to build upon Snyder's return to his office prior to the 2009 season. Snyder re-instilled those Wildcats' 16 Goals for Success into his players. He hired strength and conditioning coach Chris Dawson, who's no-nonsense approach keyed a resurgence in the weight room and on the field.
"The attitude changed about two years ago in the locker room, and for the better," Wilson said. "People just started grinding, working a lot harder in the offseason without complaining. New guys came in and saw that and it just had a domino effect. Now, that's how our whole team is. Everybody wants to be the hardest worker. Everybody wants to finish those sprints first.
"From the time I got here to now, the whole atmosphere has changed for the better. I credit that to Coach Snyder and Coach Dawson. Those two just beat that drive into us and it's paying off so far."
To outsiders ignorant of Snyder's methods, the lack of perceived flashiness might appear dull in the face of foes that go to the air and attempt to go deep and strike often in the ultra-competitive powerhouse league.
But behind dogged determination, the consistent Wildcats arm-in-arm coolly march into stadiums, and behind a disciplined style that tests opponents' endurance, they supply an emphatic answer to critics doubting their prowess.
Look at the scoreboard.