Through four games, Kansas State University running back Daniel Thomas was on a torrid pace, leading the Big 12 in rushing and averaging 157 rushing yards per game.
Then last week’s match-up with Nebraska went down and so, too, did Thomas’ numbers.
In addition to falling into second place on the conference’s list of rushing leaders, Thomas saw his average-yards-per-game total drop by 20 after finishing with just 63 yards on 22 carries, a third of which came on K-State’s opening drive.
So, was Thomas’ latest outing enough to make the Kansas University football team feel comfortable about facing the 6-foot-2, 228-pound senior at 6:30 tonight at Memorial Stadium?
Don’t bet on it. And there are a couple of reasons.
“You’re talking about a young man who probably is going to be one of the top 10 or 15 picks in the NFL Draft,” KU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush said.
But that’s only the half of it. The other part comes from the way the Jayhawks (2-3 overall, 0-1 in Big 12 play) performed the last time they were on the field when QB Robert Griffin III and Baylor lit the KU defense up to the tune of 678 yards and 55 points.
“That was one of those games where we didn’t do very much of anything better than average, at best,” Torbush said. “With what happened to us in our last game, this game is tremendously important.”
And that makes stopping Thomas tremendously important, as well.
KU coach Turner Gill said one of the keys to the game would be limiting Thomas’ impact.
“You are not going to stop their running game, but you have to slow down their running game,” Gill said. “Daniel Thomas is a great running back, and he does a lot of great things. He pounds people, he has pretty good speed, and he is someone that we must slow down.”
If there’s one thing that benefits the Jayhawks in this match-up — particularly against K-State’s ground game — it’s that they can prepare for it, much the way they did for Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack. If KU is successful against the run, that should make things decidedly more pleasant for the Kansas defense, considering the Wildcats (4-1, 1-1) rank last in the Big 12 in passing offense and, last week alone, played three different quarterbacks in a 48-13 loss to Nebraska.
“If I was a coach, I’d give (Thomas) the ball 20 or 30 times a game, too,” KU senior cornerback Chris Harris said. “But we’re definitely going to try to key on him and definitely try to make them throw the ball.”
Despite the potential quarterback shuffle, K-State coach Bill Snyder said Monday morning during the Big 12 coaches teleconference that senior Carson Coffman (60-of-98 for 730 yards, six TDs and three interceptions in five starts) would remain the starter.
Asked if knowing for sure who would start under center tonight mattered one way or the other, Gill said: “We’ve got ’em all covered.”
Asked if he learned anything from Nebraska — ranked No. 5 in this week’s Associated Press poll — about how to attack the Wildcats, Gill said: “We saw some things. I’m just gonna leave it at that.”
When rattling off the keys to the game, Gill’s list was long, and his goals were lofty. He talked about getting three or more turnovers, missing fewer than 10 tackles and scoring 28 or more points on offense.
For Harris, who said he felt good about the way KU’s defense matches up with Kansas State, the blueprint for victory was not as important as going out and finding a way to deliver it.
“We definitely need to win this game so we can get back on top in the rivalry,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve only lost to them once.”
The Jayhawks have won three of the last four meetings in this series, which has spanned 108 games and will be played for the 100th consecutive year tonight. KU leads the overall series 65-37-5 and has won three straight at Memorial Stadium.