Kansas State's defensive performance vs. Stanford was eight months in the making
MANHATTAN — Eight months of preparation and brainstorming left Chris Klieman confident enough Saturday to unveil Kansas State's brand new defense against Stanford.
But he also was plenty anxious, trying it out for the first time in a season-opener against a Power Five opponent on a neutral field.
"Absolutely, without question," Klieman said Tuesday, three days after the Wildcats' new 3-3-5 defensive look stymied Stanford in a 24-7 victory in Arlington, Texas. "We had a lot of things drawn up on the sidelines that were Plan B and Plan C."
For a former defensive coordinator who spent his entire career operating with four down linemen, whether that meant a traditional 4-3-4 look or today's more common 4-2-5 alignment with two linebackers and a nickel back, it was a radical departure.
"We were into January, and (defensive coordinator Joe) Klanderman and I had a number of long conversations about what we needed to do to be better on defense," Klieman said. "We had a lot of kids miss last year and a lot of COVID issues and stuff, but bottom line, we needed to be better on defense and this was one way that we thought we could improve our defense."
After a 4-1 start, the Wildcats ended last season on a five-game losing streak. They allowed an average of 23.8 points over the first five games, but that number ballooned to 40.6 over the last five.
So Klieman and Klanderman reached out to some coaching colleagues — they're not divulging any names — and went to work. They introduced the 3-3-5 defense to the team during the spring practice, kept tweaking it through fall camp, and finally on Saturday it was time to take it live.
It's hard to argue with the results.
With a revolving cast of linemen leading the way, the Wildcats not only generated enough pressure on Stanford's two quarterbacks with their three-man rush to record four sacks, but they also completely stifled the Cardinal running game.
And with three safeties roaming the back end, they had two interceptions. The result: Stanford finished with 233 yards total offense, including 39 on the ground, and scored its only points with just over three minutes left in the game.
"They were the heartbeat of the team today," K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson said after the game. "And the way they were flying around, they were attacking every down.
"It just gave our whole team life, truly."
Super-senior linebacker Cody Fletcher said the coaching staff hinted during the winter that a change was afoot. The reception at the time, however, was lukewarm.
"We were hesitant at first, of course, because we didn't know much about it," he said. "But as they started talking about it and showing us how we could play faster with it and how it could help us be a better defense, I think we all were on board."
The new defense allowed Ryan Henington and junior Wayne Jones, both of whom switched from safety to strong-side linebacker during the offseason, to get on the field alongside Fletcher on the weak side, and Daniel Green in the middle.
"It's definitely a new change," Henington said. "It's a 180-degree shift from what we were doing with the four-down defense and, honestly, after the first quarter (against) Stanford, I was really like, 'OK, this is going to work.'
"There were a lot of big situations where I felt really comfortable with it."
Fletcher, who had eight tackles and a sack — Green led the way with nine stops — saw positive signs before the opener that the Wildcats were onto something.
"I think toward the end of camp, if you just talk to the offensive players, we can disguise coverages so much better and it just gives people a lot more issues," Fletcher said. "I think toward the end of camp, we just felt extremely comfortable, and as you saw last week, we played extremely fast."
He got no argument from wide receiver Malik Knowles.
"All through camp, they were giving us (a lot of) trouble, especially during scrimmage days," Knowles said. "The defense was stopping us from doing anything, so I think from a competitive standpoint it was a lot, lot harder than what it had been in the past."
The idea behind the three-man front with five defensive backs was to combat the Big 12's prolific spread offenses. Turns out it was just as effective against Stanford's power running attack.
The Wildcats will get a much different look this week, when Southern Illinois visits Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the 6 p.m. home-opener. The Salukis, who are ranked No. 8 in the FCS Top 25, passed for 460 yards in their season-opening 47-21 victory at Southeast Missouri State.
Does Klieman feel more comfortable now that the defense survived its first trial by fire?
"Part of it was just not knowing what some of the solutions were to the problems that we were going to have," he said of the opener. "Fortunately, we didn't have as many problems this week, and we're still learning on some of this."
As for the SIU game ... how much 3-3-5 might we see?
"We still don't know if we're going to play (the 3-3-5) 50%, 80%, 90% of the snaps," Klieman said. "Last game we played it an awful lot and I don't know what will happen the next game and the next game.
"We still need to continue to get better on defense."