K-State opens season with FCS champs
By ARNE GREEN
MANHATTAN — If anybody knows first-hand how far Kansas State's defense has come since the spring, it's B.J. Finney.
As Kansas State's starting center, going against a completely rebuilt front seven daily in practice, he has had a front-row seat.
"We do get to see them every day and we get to see them improve," Finney said of a defensive unit that will put nine new starters on the field when they open the season at 7:30 tonight against North Dakota State at sold-out Snyder Family Stadium. "They're extremely hard-working guys, they know the task before them, they have their work cut out for them and they're just trying to be the best they can.
"From the spring to this point, there's been vast improvement in our defense."
That's good news for Wildcat fans who have stressed over a defense with no starting experience up front and a linebacking corps that lost Big 12 defensive player of the year Arthur Brown. Especially facing North Dakota State, which is not your typical first-game Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
The Bison are two-time defending national champions and ranked No. 1 again in the preseason polls. They have won six of their last nine games against FBS opponents, including three straight on the road.
"There are a lot of things that stand out," K-State coach Bill Snyder said of the Bison. "I think number one, this is a faster football team than people want to envision.
"Sometimes on tape you can't really identify that, but they run well. Secondly, they're probably as aggressive and tough a football team as you'll line up and play."
Though the Bison were best known for their defense last year, they also return nine starters from an offense that ranked 21st in rushing with two individual 1,000-yard rushers and a quarterback, Brock Jensen, now in his fourth season.
"They're a really good team," said K-State sophomore defensive tackle Travis Britz, who outside of junior end Ryan Mueller is the Wildcats' most experienced lineman. "They run the ball really well and they're pretty good passing, too, so we really have to be on our game."
The Wildcat defense has the added burden of proving itself to a skeptical audience eager to see how it will perform as a unit.
"I think that every defense would have some kind of pressure opening the season and making a statement," said Britz, who will start on the inside next to senior nose tackle Chaquil Reed. "We want to show that we really can compete in college football and this conference.
"Yeah, we have a new stadium and a good opponent coming in, but I feel that it is just like every other year. We'll reload and keep working hard to prove to people that we are a great defense."
Practicing against an offense that returns its entire line, leading rusher and a veteran group of receivers not only has helped the defense improve, but also to gauge its readiness.
"It has definitely helped us grow as a team and as a defense especially," said redshirt freshman Will Davis, a backup linebacker getting ready for his first game as a Wildcat. "There are a lot of veteran guys on the offensive side of the ball and we try to battle every day and we're trying to win against our offense every day."
Britz especially has benefited going against a battle-tested offensive line.
"It's so much help this fall camp and in the spring, knowing that these guys are a pretty good offensive line, maybe the best in the Big 12," he said.
Joining Britz, Reed and Mueller as first-time starters on the defensive line is sophomore end Marquel Bryant. Junior Jonathan Truman will make his starting debut at weak-side linebacker.
Senior middle linebacker Blake Slaughter redshirted last season and was a backup two years ago, but started four games as a sophomore in 2010. Strong-side starter Tre Walker, another senior, started 11 games as a sophomore and four of eight last year before going down with a season-ending knee injury.
In the secondary, senior free safety Ty Zimmerman is a fourth-year starter who earned all-Big 12 honors last year. Sophomore strong safety Dante Barnett started two games in place of an injured Zimmerman last season.
Junior Randall Evans, who started seven games as a nickel back last year, returns at that spot but also could start at cornerback in the Wildcats' base defense. The other corner, making his first start, is senior Dorrian Roberts.
Like Finney, Bill Snyder said he has seen the defense get better over time.
"I see the steady improvement that I think we're making," he said. "Ask me Saturday morning and I'll probably have a little better answer, but I think they're getting a feel for each other (and) I think there's a greater continuity right now then there was at the outset.
"I think they have a better understanding of the global concept, so to speak."
On offense, junior college transfer Jake Waters will make his first appearance and first start at quarterback against a North Dakota State defense that ranked No. 1 overall in the FCS, both in yards and points allowed.
Bison mature, confident
North Dakota State is see it as an opportunity to strike a blow for all Football Championship Subdivision teams going on the road to play their Bowl Subdivision big brothers.
And the Bison are plenty confident that they can hold their own when they open the season against Kansas State at 7:30 tonight at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Not only are they two-time defending FBS national champions and ranked No. 1 again heading into the 2013 season, but they return nine starters on each side of the ball.
"We're ready as a football team, we're confident and we're an experienced bunch," said senior quarterback Brock Jensen, a four-year starter who should become the school's all-time passing leader this year. "We're excited to go down there and play these guys."
The Bison are 12-0 on the road the past two seasons and won at Colorado State last year. In fact, they have a three-game winning streak against FBS schools, including a 6-3 victory at Kansas two years ago.
"We're anticipating a great challenge, but if there's ever a year we can match up on something like that, I think this is the year," said 11th-year NDSU coach Craig Bohl, who faced K-State eight times before that as an assistant at Nebraska.
The Bison led the FBS in total defense and scoring defense last year, ranking No. 4 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. And they return six of their top seven tacklers, including All-America cornerback Marcus Williams and all-Missouri Valley linebacker Grant Olson.
"Defensively, they've been amazing," K-State coach Bill Snyder said of the Bison, who allowed just 11.5 points per game and held opponents to an average of 234 yards.
Offensively, running backs Sam Ojuri and John Crockett both broke 1,000 yards rushing and return for their senior seasons. Jensen threw for 2,331 yards and 17 touchdowns, plus rushed for 357 and 12 more scores.
Sense of urgency
K-State has not started well in recent years against FBS opponents, struggling for three quarters with Missouri State last year before blowing the game open late for a 51-9 decision, and squeaking past Eastern Kentucky, 10-7, in 2012.
"It's crucial to get off to a great start," junior center B.J. Finney said. "If we don't get off to a great start it kind of puts a burden on you to get things turned around and to get things corrected to make sure you can get on track.
"North Dakota State is a great team, so we're going to have to be on top of our game plan, we're going to have to execute the best that we have."
Leave early to arrive on time
Fans driving to Manhattan from the south and west should leave extra travel time today.
The Kansas Department of Transportation announced Thursday that construction on Interstate 70 between Abilene and Chapman will close the eastbound lanes, including the eastbound ramp at Abilene off K-15.
Motorists coming from the south on K-15 must detour west on I-70, drive three miles to the Fair Road exit, then get back on eastbound I-70.
West of Manhattan on K-18, construction is limiting traffic to one lane each direction for a stretch as well.