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September 1, 2008Kansas State knew North Texas wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald could hurt a defense. But on a game day in Manhattan that was dedicated to honoring past K-State excellence, an improved Wildcats defense certainly looked like one of those smash-mouth units of old in holding the All-American candidate to his fewest receiving yards as a starter and taming the Mean Green's vaunted passing attack during a 45-6 win in the season opener for both teams.
Quarterback Giovanni Vizza and North Texas boasted the nation's 18th-best passing attack in averaging 289.7 yards a year ago while the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Fitzgerald averaged 9.2 catches and 110.2 receiving yards for the Mean Green, who finished with a 2-10 record in 2007 under first-year coach Todd Dodge.
Vizza, the school record-setter and returning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, and the frightening Fitzgerald were expected to be even better in 2008.
They couldn't do anything against an upstart Wildcats defense that showed a blend of athleticism and depth and took an important first step in improving from when it surrendered 400.6 total yards (69th nationally), including 259.0 passing yards (99th) in 2007.
"We didn't execute well enough," Dodge said. "Give all the credit to K-State. They are a very improved football team, but in certain situations we didn't execute well enough."
During a season opener in which K-State formally recognized its famed 1998 team and inducted four All-Americans into its Ring of Honor, the Wildcats' defense made a statement that likely appeased previous defensive players.
Vizza completed 16 of 29 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown and Fitzgerald had six catches for 31 yards as North Texas totaled just 205 yards against a unit that featured eight first-year players in its two-deep lineup.
"The objective was to come in and stop Fitzgerald," K-State coach Ron Prince said, "and we were able to do that."
It marked the first time in 60 games K-State hasn't given up at least one play from scrimmage that gained at least 20 yards -- dating back to a 41-5 rout of Troy State in 2003.
It was just the fourth time K-State has held a team to fewer than 10 points since then top-ranked Oklahoma managed seven points in the 2003 Big 12 Championship game.
It was also the fewest total yards allowed by K-State in an opener since Western Kentucky managed just 183 in 2002.
"It was important. We could've kept the starters in the whole game and tried to preserve the shutout but we wouldn't get our team any better," said Prince, who is 13-13 in three seasons. "I told our coaches and players that as much as we want to shut them out -- I do, trust me -- it's important to get a lot of players exposed to how we want to play. We gave up a couple yards, a couple of plays like that, and now at least we have those on tape where we can confer with the player about exactly how we want to do it next time.
"We were able to do it with a pretty decent outing from both a run and passing stats standpoint."
It wasn't until Vizza found wide receiver Alex Lott with a nine-yard scoring toss ahead of reserve outside linebacker Dahrnaz Tigner with five seconds remaining in the third quarter that North Texas finally got onto the scoreboard. But Vlad Faustin blocked a Jeremy Knott extra-point attempt -- the first blocked extra-point for K-State in 72 games -- with the game at hand, 42-6.
North Texas' lone scoring opportunity only came after an interception thrown by reserve quarterback Carson Coffman gave the Mean Green the ball at the K-State 15-yard line.
"We've still got a lot to work on, but we answered a lot of questions that were facing us as we came into this game," senior defensive tackle Brandon Balkcom said. "It was a lot better."
In all, North Texas reached K-State territory three times, including once following Coffman's interception and once early in the contest when new running back Keithen Valentine fumbled at the 37. North Texas reached K-State territory only once on its own in 13 possessions, when running back Micah Mosley rushed 18 yards to the K-State 41-yard line on the Mean Green's longest play from scrimmage.
But North Texas would travel no further on its eight-play drive. The Mean Green went three-and-out six times total and were 2 for 13 on third-down conversions.
For as much as Prince, defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar and players prepared for the prospect of trickery and a spread offense that gave them an opportunity to used their nickel formation featuring an extra defensive back, it also marked the return of two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection Ian Campbell at defensive end, where he is expected to play at full-time this season after moonlighting at outside linebacker a year ago.
But against North Texas the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Campbell saw time at defensive tackle as well, as numerous players shuffled and substituted and showed off the versatility Prince spoke about during training camp, which he closed to the public.
At times in a 4-3 front, Campbell moved to tackle and outside linebacker Olu Hall -- one of three defensive newcomers to earn his first start -- moved to defensive end. It was one of a variety of mix-and-match looks along the line.
Campbell, a film study freak, said the defense prepared for about everything, "but we didn't expect them to use two backs."
With little success through the air, Dodge used Mosley and junior Cam Montgomery together in the backfield, which caused the defense to adjust. North Texas finished with 105 rushing yards on 26 carries but could never break free for a gain of 20-plus yards.
Fitzgerald, the nation's No. 2-returning wide receiver in 2008 and who had 327 receiving yards against Southern Methodist in a game last season, caught passes of 7, 2, 7, 5, 4 and 6 yards against K-State.
"I was concerned coming into the game that we would end up chasing him all over the field and that we might have a chance to be worn down if we're not careful," Prince said. "It didn't turn out that way because we did sub and players were able to keep a high standard out there."
It was an issue of frustration for the Mean Green, who had 32 plays from scrimmage cover at least 30 yards in 2007. K-State allowed 66 plays to travel at least 20 yards a year ago. While North Texas didn't commit a turnover, the K-State defense stiffened and adjusted and held the Mean Green to its fewest points in 13 games under Dodge, whose team scored 10 points at Oklahoma in last season's opener and seven at Arkansas.
"Of course, you know it's a new year and an offense with another year under its belt is going to have some new wrinkles for you," said Campbell, who collected his first sack of the season and the 17th of his career. "We were expecting some different things and had to adjust to that. I'm happy we adjusted because that's what a good defense has to be able to do. For the most part, I was comfortable with everything that was going on out there."
Hall embraces the opportunity to showcase his talents as K-State seeks to use more multiple defensive looks than it did a year ago.
"It doesn't really matter to me," said Hall, who sat out 2007 after transferring from Virginia. "I like both spots because with my hand down, I'm rushing. If it's not down, that means versatility. I could be dropping back or I could be blitzing. It really doesn't matter. I like it and I'm having fun with it."
"It was intense and I realized I had to keep doing what the first team had done," Harold said. "I just focused on what I was supposed to be doing. It was fun getting in and playing in front of the crowd and representing Kansas State."
Calvin, listed at defensive end, lined-up at defensive tackle while Harold took his own listed spot at end. Harold said he had a few jitters when he entered the game, but believes he and Calvin will continue to develop behind a defensive line that seemed to pack a punch whether it featured three or four linemen up front.
"That was the first time I'd lined up next to Calvin when he was at nose tackle," Harold said. "It's about developing chemistry and I'm sure in the future Calvin and I are going to complement each other pretty well."
Meanwhile, Hall and senior Antwon Moore backed-up an earlier claim that they were going to play mean and provide aggressiveness off the edge at the outside linebacker spots. Hall said he grew so emotional in his debut that "I felt like crying at times." Moore, who missed most of last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, picked up where he left off in flustering the passer and stuffing the run with four tackles in his return.
"This past week in practice the coaches have been working us really hard and stressing us to understand that we want to be a shutout defense," Moore said. "So we as a defense are trying to bring back the Lynch Mob defense."
For now, it's a goal. By November, the Wildcats hope it has evolved into reality.