MinerRush: Is the start to the season exactly what most K-State fans expected before the season started and did expectations change after the Auburn game?
Jon Morse: It's pretty close. About 2/3 of the respondents in our pre-season expectations poll had the Wildcats losing to Auburn, so it's not like losing that game was a huge shock. Further, I think most people are of the opinion that K-State played a lot better against Auburn than they'd expected, although the point spread wasn't really any different than what they'd planned on. If anything, I think perhaps expectations may be a bit higher in certain respects now.
MR: From an outsiders prospective, it seems the school benefiting the most in the Big 12 from Texas' lets just say shortcomings the past few years is K-State, is that a fair statement or a wild theory?
JM: That's a fair point, though it might actually be Baylor that's benefitted more than anyone. K-State doesn't really fight Texas for recruits that much -- one or two a year, maybe. But Baylor's going toe-to-toe with Austin, and they've caught some talent that Texas was after... sometimes as a direct result of the Longhorns' own incompetence.
MR: How does not having a conference championship game hurt the Big 12's standing once the votes are tallied for the new collge football playoff?
JM: I don't know, and neither does anyone else except those folks on the committee. I don't think it should matter except so far as teams playing conference championship games have to fight through a 13-game season as opposed to 12. That's not an irrelevant data point, of course, but it gets tricky because of how things are perceived throughout the course of the season. If you look back at the season as a whole, that extra game matters. If you look at the season from the start and imagine what will happen, it matters.
But if you've already been ranking the teams for weeks and you've got a Big 12 team in your top 4, and that team happens to play on December 6, you can't seriously go back on December 7 and say, "Well, they didn't play in a conference championship game, so we've penalized them." You should already have factored that in before you get to December, because on the morning of December 6 Oklahoma is 11-0 and Alabama is 12-0 and you should be able to tell the difference then if you think it matters. This is the logical flaw pretty much every talking head who discusses this issue completely misses, and it's maddening.
MR: If possible, how does a defensive coordinator go about slowing down Tyler Lockett, and is he 100% healthy for Saturday?
JM: Pit traps? Concertina wire? Quicksand?
Actually, if you blanket Lockett you can slow him down, but when he's 100% he'll break defenders' ankles. I always like to point to the video of him completely destroying Jason Verrett last year and then remind people that Verrett was a first-round draft pick. It makes me feel warm inside. (Lockett also flat beat Justin Gilbert a couple of times last season, though the highlights don't illustrate it as beautifully.)
That said... no. I don't think he's 100%. This being a Bill Snyder operation we never know for sure, but he didn't look up to snuff last week, and since his problem appears to be a hamstring you just never can tell. We'll know when he's 100% when he demonstrates that he is, I suppose.
MR: What is the identity of the defense, and how do you think K-State will go about slowing down UTEP's run game?
JM: For a few years, this has been a defense predicated on stopping the run game and playing bend-but-don't-break in the secondary. That's changed slightly, as you can see the defensive backs giving less cushion and keeping receivers contained a bit better off the line of scrimmage. I mentioned on the podcast that I don't think K-State is particularly concerned about Jameill Showers throwing the ball, and that's because he's only averaging about 120 a game through the air. So what we might see K-State do is being a safety forward into more of a run defense role and effectively play a 4-4-3 or even a 5-3-3.
On the other hand, Tom Hayes may just smear vanilla all over the place and dare Aaron Jones to out-athlete the defensive line. K-State coaches are weird like that sometimes.
MR: How much stock do you take in Auburn shutting down the run game, or was it just a one game, fast defense wonder?
JM: This is a really great question, and I'm not sure I know even now. It is possible that everything that went wrong offensively for K-State last week was because Auburn had throttled the run game. The catch is, K-State was able to get off some decent runs, including a touchdown for each running back. We've actually had a running discussion today about whether the audible which resulted in the touchdown-that-wasn't to Tyler Lockett was the right call or not. Nobody disagrees that if you're going to check off, that was the right play to check to; the argument is whether Waters should have stayed with the called run play there rather than checking off.
MR: It appears K-State goes with a running back by committee with quarterback Jake Waters, and running backs Charles Jones, and DeMarcus Robinson, who do you want to see separate themselves against UTEP?
JM: Oh, I care not one little bit. The way I see it, if they all run for 70 yards, K-State's running for over 200 and nobody's taking the wear and tear of a 30-touch afternoon. It might be different on an emotional level if any of these guys was the second coming of Barry Sanders, but they're not; as such, there's no need to tie ourselves to notions of having a 1000-yard back.
Aside from that, all three are very different runners. Waters, of course, is a scrambler who's learned how to use those scramble abilities within the zone read. Jones is more the straight-up running back, while Robinson is that pesky scatback guy. So they all have their uses within the offense, too.
MR: Offensive players not named Tyler Lockett to keep an eye on?
JM: Well, we just talked about three of them, obviously. The main threat outside of the Waters-Lockett combo is the other wideout, Curry Sexton. I have been describing him since the start of last season as Wes Welker-lite, and Thursday night everyone saw why. He's got great hands, an affinity for getting open a foot past the sticks, and if you actually hit him in space he'll break a big gain. He's not a flyer, and will probably never score on an 85-yard run-and-catch. But when the chips are down, he's ridiculously dependable.
You'll also want to keep an eye on tight end Zach Trujillo and fullback Glenn Gronkowski. Neither get many touches, being more utilized as blockers, but when their numbers get called, big things have a tendency to happen. K-State had four 40+ yard touchdown receptions between the two last year, and this is where I remind you we're talking about a 6'5"-260 tight end and a fullback.
MR: Defensive players to watch?
JM: You're probably well aware of last year's Big 12 defensive lineman of the year, Ryan Mueller. Of course, so is Sean Kugler, as well as every coach on every team K-State's played so far this year... so Mueller isn't racking up the numbers he did last season. He's still every bit as disruptive, though, and has probably helped allow the other linemen to make more plays by drawing extra attention.
Dakorey Johnson got his first start at linebacker last week, and promptly won Big 12 defensive player of the week honors. Obviously, you'll want to pay attention to him. JUCO transfer Danzel McDaniel has placed a pretty solid stamp down at corner, and in contrast to a lot of corners will lay out some of the most punishing hits this defense will deliver. You'll also want to get concerned whenever you see true freshman Elijah Lee on the field. He's already got 2.5 sacks, and you probably have a good idea how important it is that on a Bill Snyder team a true freshman is making significant contributions defensively.
JM: I always try to stay conservative because if I'm going to be wrong I'd rather it not be while predicting a blowout. Aaron Jones is going to be hard to handle, but if this defense can shut down Auburn's rushing game it can handle Jones. Conversely, although I know UTEP is vastly improved, I think there's still some growing to do there; I don't think the Miners have the athletes to keep the Wildcat offense in check. It may stay close early, but -- well, today at least -- I'm going with 35-14 K-State.