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August 31, 2012

Game Up Close: Starting anew

When a college football team starts a new season with a different look and an unfamiliar quarterback, they are bound to have a slow start. It's hard not to. There are just too many kinks in the system for it to work perfectly from the onset.

So, when a then-unproven Collin Klein trotted onto the field as Kansas State's primary signal caller in the 2011 season opener against Eastern Kentucky, there was some skepticism as to how long it would take for the converted wide receiver to find a solid rhythm offensively. For some, including many wearing purple on the sideline, it was simply taking too long. But they were patient.

The Wildcats turned the football over five times, including four fumbles last September. They also had seven costly penalties for 45 yards that forced Bill Snyder's team away from their original gameplan. It was not the start any of the 50,000-plus at Bill Snyder Family Stadium had envisioned against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent. But they were patient.

Nearly 50 minutes into the contest, K-State finally got on the scoreboard with an Anthony Cantele 36-yard field goal. Then, with 1:33 remaining and down four, Klein connected on a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Harper that sealed a stressful season-opening victory. The rest is history.

The Bears lost the bulk of their offense from last season when starting quarterback Trevor Wooden was dismissed from the team earlier this year. That includes their rushing attack. They will rely heavily on junior Vernon Scott. He has game experience, but so do the Wildcat linebackers. If Scott breaks through the Wildcat defensive line, three physical players will meet him with a knack for the ball. It will be a struggle for the Bears to move the chains, especially on the ground.
Advantage: K-State
The improved passing skills of quarterback Collin Klein should open up the Wildcats' run game even more than last season. Klein, K-State's main rusher, is a physical runner that can bulldoze over defensive lineman. On top of that, he has a healthy score of running backs to share the wealth with. Both John Hubert and Angelo Pease will be looked to carry the load during this game. Missouri State has a lot of returning defensive players, but the Wildcats have several players with big-play capabilities that can break open the contest at any moment.
Big Advantage: K-State
Again, the absence of Wooden really hurts the Bears' offense, especially in the passing game. An unproven Kierra Harris will have to face a hungry, and talented, Wildcat secondary that showed they could jump passes and take it the other way last season. Harris might be able to exploit the Wildcats if they take too many gambles, but the Wildcats have a veteran group that knows when to pick their spots.
Advantage: K-State
All eyes are on Collin Klein as he showcases his new and improved passing game from last season. In 2011, Klein's confidence grew as the season progressed and he is looking to reach even greater heights through the air this year. Klein also has his top targets back. He should feel comfortable in the system and will be looking to exploit the Bears' defense from the get-go.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State is notorious for having a quality special teams unit. This year is no different. With a healthy Tyler Lockett returning kicks and place kicker Anthony Cantele and punter Ryan Doerr back once again; the Wildcats have one of the best units in the Big 12. They will be looking to make an impact during the first game of the season.
Big Advantage: K-State
With high hopes and lofty self-imposed expectations, K-State will be fired to play in front of a sold-out Bill Snyder Family Stadium. And after last year's frustrating opener, they will be focused to start the season right. Both teams have a lot of returning players, but K-State has more in the important specialty positions, including quarterback.
Big Advantage: K-State

This year, Klein and the gang are back. This time, they have experience. And once again, they have something to prove. One thing remains, though: they don't want to make the same mistake twice.

K-State's first opponent this year is Missouri State, another FCS school with a defense consisting of nine-returning starters that allowed 37.1 points during a dismal 2-9 season a year ago. On paper, that looks atrocious. But then again, so did Eastern Kentucky.

With that being said, in order for Klein and the offense to not repeat the sub-par performance of 2011, they will need to start the 2012 campaign by taking care of what they can control: themselves. That means, limit their turnovers and penalties as much as possible. Klein agrees.

"We can't beat ourselves," the 6-foot-5 senior quarterback said. "We cannot turn the ball over and not have penalties that put us behind the chains or not advantageous down and distances. We're going to have to make some plays."

That's the other thing. K-State must capitalize on big play opportunities when they present themselves, especially early. That's what the 2010 version of the Wildcats did against Missouri State when Carson Coffman and Daniel Thomas lit up the Bears for nearly 500 yards of total offense in a 48-24 rout.

Klein will have to pick his spots wisely, but be open to taking some chances downfield with a group of speedy receivers in Harper, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. When it's not there, he can hand the ball off to a plethora of running backs. Or, he can just keep it himself -- something he did 317 times last season.

The playbook won't be showcased in its entirety against Missouri State. That's not Snyder-esque. However, it will probably be more balanced Saturday than it was against Eastern Kentucky a year ago. The Wildcats ran the ball 56 times, including 25 by Klein, and only had 21 pass attempts. Regardless how the offensive game plan is structured, though, Harper believes it's important for them to start the season clicking on multiple cylinders.

"It's big. It sets the tempo for the rest of the season," the senior wide receiver said. "Unfortunately last year, it didn't set the tempo for the rest of the season, but it gave us a wake up call.

"This year, we're trying to go out there and set a tempo and a pace for the whole season."

Saturday's season opener should be a considered as a dress rehearsal for the Wildcats. With Miami (FL) coming to Manhattan next weekend and the Big 12-opener at Oklahoma later this month, K-State will have to be ready. There is no immediate urgency, but the players know the importance of finding that rhythm. Snyder has reminded them of that already.

"We have to get ready quick," tight end Travis Tannahill said. "I think we are doing a pretty good job, though, and I think we'll be all right."

This will be a good trial run against an experience defense. They might not be as good, but they know their assignments and they know what they are supposed to be doing. Plus, it's their season opener as well. They will come prepared.

In the end, K-State just has too much firepower. They have too many weapons and several proven commodities to wear most of their opponents down this season, including Missouri State. It shouldn't be an issue. Plus, according to Harper, their offensive formula is fairly simple, not to mention obvious.

"It's scoring points, really," Harper quickly noted. "Go out there and scoring points and not turn the ball over. That's what we are really trying to do.

"If it's big plays, if it's long drives, either way. It's just going out there and scoring more points than the other team."

Then, there is the Snyder. The 72-year-old coach has won 19 straight season-opening games. That's not a fluke. His teams are almost always prepared.

Although it's somewhat unlikely, there is a possibility that the Wildcats have another slow start. But be patient. It's still only the first game of the year.

And let's face it. Last year's slow start didn't end too badly.

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