The Kansas State defense seemingly has found a groove heading into the last two weeks of the regular season. That showed Saturday afternoon in the team’s 34-17 win over West Virginia.
K-State held West Virginia to its second-lowest point total on the season while forcing three turnovers and holding the visitors scoreless on eight of their 11 possessions.
Now, after dropping the first three conference games of the season, K-State has rattled off four wins in a row.
“We’re feeling good right now,” Wildcat senior defensive tackle Eli Huggins said. “Losing those three games sucked. We always prepared hard, but we’ve just taken it to another level. We’ve seen that be successful the last couple weeks, and we just need to keep that going.”
In the last four games, K-State has given up 24, 12, 10 and 17 points, which is a far cry from the three consecutive 30-plus-point games the Wildcat defense allowed to start the Big 12 slate.
“We’re doing some better things,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “We’re bending but not breaking. People are moving the ball. (West Virginia) had 345 yards, which isn’t a great output, but it’s pretty productive. But the points are what matters. They had some drives against us and we had some stops.
“If we can hold people under 20 points, we always feel like we have a chance. Simplifying things over the last three and a half games have helped us.”
On Saturday, players like Huggins, senior defensive back Russ Yeast, senior linebacker Cody Fletcher and the team’s defensive MVP at this point in the season, sophomore defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, all came through in critical situations.
Yeast started strong, with an interception on the second snap of the game. West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege found an open Mountaineer wide receiver who had K-State’s defense beat. But Doege’s perfectly thrown ball bounced off his intended receiver’s hands and wound up instead with Yeast, who returned it to the K-State 45.
“I saw the ball being tipped up into the air,” Yeast said, “and as a (defensive back) we have to make the most of the opportunities that come to us.”
While that play was more about taking advantage of being in the right place at the right time than a display of pure skill and athleticism, Yeast had a chance to show just that on the next drive.
West Virginia ran a flea flicker, and Doege had junior wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton open downfield on a play that easily could’ve been a touchdown. Yeast, who originally bit on the run fake, realized his mistake just in time and sprinted nearly half of the width of the field to catch up to Ford-Wheaton and knock the pass away.
“I just happened to see (Ford-Wheaton) sprinting out of the corner of my eye,” Yeast said. “I really thought they were running the ball. They did a really good job of masking it up. I just happened to see it and I made a play. I was happy. It kept points off the board.”
Yeast ended the day with four pass breakups, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished by a K-State defender since Justin Gardner did so in the team’s win over TCU last season.
Yeast’s three interceptions this fall (through 10 games) are the most since AJ Parker also snagged three in 2019.
“Russ has been a big leader for us on that back end,” senior linebacker Cody Fletcher said. “He’s just been a steady player who always plays well. We’re thankful to have him back there.”
Fletcher notched K-State’s second pick of the day on West Virginia’s final offensive possession. It marked his first-ever interception as a Wildcat.
“It was really big,” Fletcher said. “It was exciting to get an interception. We kind of knew what they were going to run there, so we kind of anticipated it. But yeah, it was good.”
West Virginia’s lone consistent offensive threat came in the form of senior running back Leddie Brown, who had a solid game, recording 90 yards on 20 carries and 33 yards receiving on five catches.
“He’s an exceptional player,” Klieman said. “He had 20 rushes for 90 yards. If that was what he was going to have before the game, I was probably going to be OK with it. He had a long of 23, which was probably because we missed some tackles. He’s a terrific running back, and we knew he was going to be a focal point because when he is, they’re successful. I thought we probably got them to throw the ball quite a bit more than they wanted to.”
Anudike-Uzomah has been a sack master this season. But Saturday, he took a back seat in that department. Instead, Huggins, junior linebacker Daniel Green and freshman defensive end Nate Matlack had a sack apiece. That included a key fourth-down takedown by Huggins near the end of the fourth quarter that stopped a West Virginia drive at K-State’s 29 and resulted in a turnover on downs.
“Sacks are very hard to get,” Huggins said. “I know Felix has made it look easy the last few weeks but it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of people doing their job for it to happen. On that play, we were covering everybody really well which makes it a lot easier when (their quarterback) has to sit there and hold the ball. It’s very satisfying to get a sack. That’s probably the best feeling there is for a D-lineman.”
While Anudike-Uzomah didn’t get a sack Saturday — his first game without one since the Iowa State contest a month ago — he didn’t leave empty handed.
In the fourth quarter, West Virginia found itself down 14 with 7:22 to play, desperate to get the ball in the end zone.
After back-to-back positive passes set up the Mountaineers with first-and-10 at their own 35, Anudike-Uzomah got a hold of Brown and knocked the ball away. Senior defensive back Reggie Stubblefield scooped up the ball, effectively ending the game. The forced fumble was the sixth of the season for Anudike-Uzomah. That total is tied for the Wildcats’ single-season school record; defensive end Darren Howard also forced six during the 1999 campaign.
“I think we’re really close,” Yeast said. “We can be as good as we really want to be. I think everybody is starting to realize that we can be a good football team. We’re out there playing hard and everybody’s believing in each other. We’re looking forward to next week.”