How beating No. 13-ranked Baylor would help validate Kansas State football's recent surge

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — They won't come right out and say it, but the Kansas State Wildcats are well aware of how important Saturday's home finale against Baylor is, not only to their season, but perhaps also in validating the state of their program. 

Baylor comes into Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the 4:30 p.m. kickoff ranked No. 13 nationally — No. 11 in the Associated Press — and riding the momentum from a big victory last week against previously unbeaten Oklahoma. At 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Big 12, they're also fighting for a spot in the conference championship game.

The Wildcats (7-3, 4-3) also are riding high with a four-game winning streak after beating nemesis West Virginia, 34-17, last week. But they have yet to notch a signature win.

Beating a ranked Baylor team would qualify.

"I think we're playing really good football right now and (have) the opportunity to play a really good Baylor team," K-State super-senior linebacker Cody Fletcher said. "I think they're probably the most complete team we've played, so it's really exciting to get to play another team like that, especially here at our home stadium."

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Kansas State linebacker Cody Fletcher (55) celebrates with teammates after his first career interception last Saturday against West Virginia. The Wildcats face a major test this week in their home finale against No. 13-ranked Baylor.

Looking for a signature win

Beating the Bears no doubt would validate what the Wildcats have done over the past month. It's notable that all four victims during their four-game winning streak — Texas Tech (3-4), TCU (2-5), Kansas (1-6) and West Virginia (2-5) — have losing league records to the tune of a combined 8-20.

The three teams that beat them to open conference play — Oklahoma State (6-1), Oklahoma (6-1) and Iowa State (4-3) — are a combined 16-5 in the league. A victory over Baylor would cement the Wildcats' place in the upper echelon.

"We're excited for it," said quarterback Skylar Thompson, one of five Wildcats seniors to come back for a sixth season after last year's disappointing 4-6 finish. "It's a great opportunity.

"(Baylor is) a really good football team, and we believe that we're a really good football team. So, it's going to be exciting, and we're looking forward to this game."

Baylor ranks fourth nationally and leads the Big 12 in rushing with 237.5 yards per game and is second in the league in total offense. Running back Abram Smith tops the conference in rushing with 1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns, while all-purpose back Trestan Ebner has 642 yards and quarterback Gerry Bohanon has 283 yards and nine scores.

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K-State ranks third in the league and 19th nationally in run defense.

"They've got a really good downhill run game," Fletcher said of Baylor. "They're going to run stretch at us all day and their quarterback's got a really good, strong arm, so I think it will be a good challenge for us."

The Bears are fifth in the Big 12 in total defense (353.9), but second in fewest points allowed at 19.9 per game.

"Baylor's a really good football team," K-State coach Chris Klieman said. "They deserve all the accolades they're getting. I think they're good in all three phases — offense, defense and (special) teams.

"They're obviously really well-coached. They're playing really fast and confident, and so we're going to have our hands full. Make sure we have great plans, offense, defense and special teams."

'Being in the present'

The Wildcats' best path to beating the Bears, according to center Noah Johnson, is not to worry about beating the Bears.

"I hate to say it again, but it's just going 1-0 every day," said Johnson, another captain and super-senior. "It's being in the present, not looking forward, not looking behind. Not taking for granted the opportunity that's right in front of us and learning to control what we can control and dominate our details and find our heads in the details and give more at practice, give more in the weight room, give more in the film room, do better at recovery.

"You look too far ahead and you miss what's in front of you."

On the field, the Wildcats have benefited from a simplified approach on defense and of course Thompson's return from a knee injury that kept him out for two early games.

"I feel like we just have a lot of confidence, and seeing all of the hard work and trust in the program and what our core values are and what they mean and just trusting the process and seeing things finally starting to click is a really good feeling," Thompson said. "We've just have to continue to do that moving forward."

Nothing would stoke that good feeling for the Wildcats more than a victory over Baylor on Saturday.

"There's good focus out at practice, but there's a lot of energy," Klieman said. "Sometimes we get lost in enjoying the journey part of it. Make no mistake, it's easier to enjoy that journey when you're having success and winning some games like we have the last four weeks."