Most of Milan Puskar Stadium was empty—disillusioned West Virginia fans had streamed for the exits in the third quarter—but a small contingent of purple-clad Kansas State supporters remained in a corner of the lower bowl. "Fifty-three, 54, 55!" they shouted as Willie the Wildcat did push-ups in the end zone. Fourth-ranked K-State's 55--14 rout of the No. 17 Mountaineers was the latest indication that Bill Snyder's once cuddly Wildcats are starting to flex their muscles. They are 7--0 for the second straight season, but unlike last year's team, which lost 58--17 to Oklahoma in Week 9, this year's is not only the Big 12 front-runner but also a candidate to push Alabama, Florida and Oregon in the national title race. "We don't get the same love that they get," said receiver Chris Harper, "but we definitely have the players they have."
The Wildcats' most recognizable player, 6'5", 226-pound senior quarterback Collin Klein, became the Heisman Trophy favorite after he completed 19 of 21 passes for 323 yards and contributed to seven touchdowns (four rushing, three passing) against WVU's admittedly porous defense. In his third season as the starter, Klein has transformed himself from a glorified fullback (he ran 25 times and attempted four passes in a 2010 win over Texas) into a true dual threat who accounts for 64% of the Wildcats' offense.
His bullheaded running style belies his athleticism (a former high school basketball player, he wowed teammates with a two-handed reverse dunk in an intramural game last off-season), while improved footwork has helped compensate for his unorthodox delivery. "He doesn't do anything wrong. He doesn't make mistakes," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after the game. "You can say what you want about his throwing motion, but it goes exactly where he wants it to go." As for the Heisman hype, Klein isn't buying: "It's an honor to be mentioned, but it's out of my control."
While Klein may be the star, K-State's real strength is a stingy defense reminiscent of Snyder's teams that played for the Big 12 championship in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Defensive ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis bring pressure, and All-America middle linebacker Arthur Brown excels both against the run and in pass coverage. Safety Ty Zimmerman and cornerback Nigel Malone lead a secondary that has frazzled normally productive opposing passers like Oklahoma's Landry Jones (two turnovers in a 24--19 loss on Sept. 22) and West Virginia's Geno Smith, the Heisman front-runner two weeks ago, who tossed his first two picks of the season and had his lowest output (143 yards) in two years. "We didn't do anything out of the ordinary," said Snyder. "It has been a matter of week in and week out, just trying to improve. We played well and we played aggressively. We pursued the ball. We got our hands on Geno."
As starting center B.J. Finney says, "We're not a high-flying, high-powered team. We're not four- or five-star recruits." The Wildcats compensate for any talent discrepancy with near-flawless execution. Following noted perfectionist Snyder's 16 Goals for Success, they don't commit turnovers (four in seven games) or penalties (3.4 per game). Klein, a devout Christian from Loveland, Colo., who married his girlfriend over the summer, is a perfect leader for the program, often mimicking his coach's many team-first clichés. "We're still trying to get better," he said after Saturday's win. "We've just got to keep moving forward." In doing so, they could continue moving up the BCS standings.
Inside the Number
Anyone scanning the stats for a chink in Alabama's armor might be drawn to the Crimson Tide's total offense, which ranks only 39th with 439.6 yards per game. But that's deceiving. Total offense doesn't account for the number of plays run. On a per snap basis, 'Bama has gained 6.83 yards, 10th best in the country, while it puts up 41.0 points a game, which ranks 14th. Part of what hurts the Tide's total yardage is its stellar defense, which has given the O possession inside the 50-yard line 18 times.
Last week marked two years since Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a paralysis-inducing neck injury covering a kickoff. To reduce such violent collisions, the NCAA this season moved the spot for kickoffs up five yards, to the 35. The rule's impact on injuries is still unknown, but through eight weeks there are already 500 more touchbacks than in all of 2011.
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*Projects to 56 for the season
Geno Smith has gone from unstoppable to ordinary in two weeks, opening the door for Collin Klein, but watch out for preseason favorite Matt Barkley, who could make up a lot of ground in home games next month against No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Notre Dame.
Photograph by FRED VUICH
STRIKE A POSE Klein stiff-armed his way to one of the seven TDs he accounted for against West Virginia, a performance that could clear his path to the Heisman.
AL TIELEMANS (HARPER)
KEEP AWAY Senior receiver Chris Harper hauled in a third-quarter score to put the Wildcats up 38--7.
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (BARKLEY)