Collin Klein is among the favorites for the Heisman, and he really needs to thank his offensive line.
By SEAN KEELERFS Kansas City
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Collectively, they're responsible for the sweetest holes this side of Pebble Beach.
There's a reason Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, when he's not seeing stars, sprints to daylight like a gazelle. There's a reason running back John Hubert is harder to catch than a wet bar of soap.
And yet, with all the Bowl Championship Series love, all the Heisman Trophy buzz, it's crazy how nobody really talks about Kansas State's offensive line these days. And you know what's even crazier?
Wildcats' offensive linemen like it. Heck, they prefer it.
"We could always get more love," chuckles left tackle Cornelius Lucas, whose 9-0 Wildcats, No. 2 in the BCS standings, visit TCU Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, FOX). "But basically, we don't really like the attention. We're basically just low-key. Do our job, so we can make our Heisman winner look good."
Klein, with 12 passing touchdowns and 17 rushing TDs, looks great. Better than great, actually: He's leading several major Heisman Trophy straw polls by a comfortable margin. However, he left last week's game against Oklahoma State in the third quarter with an alleged head injury.
Assuming Klein’s heath is sound — coach Snyder said he expects the quarterback to play this weekend — and K-State remains undefeated, the statue is probably the his to lose.
So how about a little applause for the boys in the backing band, the muscle behind the Heisman favorite? What about the offensive line?
Pick a metric, they'll make a case. Want a group that'll set a tempo? The Wildcats sit among the top 20 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense (18th, 224.56 yards per game), third-down conversion percentage (seventh, 52 percent) and average time of possession (13th, 32:30 per game).
Want a wall that protects its own? K-State goes into the weekend tied for ninth in the country in fewest sacks allowed per game (0.78) and rates sixth in fewest tackles for loss allowed (4.0 per contest).
"That's one thing that coach Snyder and (offensive line) coach (Charlie) Dickey take a lot of pride in, is the discipline of this team ... just staying focused and not having a lot of penalties," center BJ Finney said.
"And obviously not beating ourselves, that's the major thing that we focus on."
Want an example of poise under pressure? The Wildcats are tied for tops in the nation with Navy in fewest penalties per game (3.44), and rank second only to the Middies in fewest penalty yards surrendered per contest (27.33).
"It's something we practice every day," Lucas notes. "We've even been practicing it since this summer. Never jump offsides."
Want a bunch that imposes its will? Through nine games, K-State has faced third-down-and-3-or-fewer on 28 occasions. The Wildcats have converted 23 of those opportunities into first downs — a stellar rate of 82.1 percent.
"Be the toughest guys on the field, every play, every snap," Lucas says. "Better conditioned, be the toughest. Just all put out. Just hogs."
Hogs that can shift on a dime, if necessary.
Redshirt freshman Cody Whitehair (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) has shuffled between guard and tackle, even filling in briefly for the 6-9 Lucas during a 55-24 rout of Texas Tech on Oct. 27. The expected starter at left tackle, Manase Foketi, transferred out over the summer. The Week 1 starter at left guard, Nick Puetz, was hurt in the season-opening victory over Missouri State.
The names and numbers change, but the continuity, the symmetry, endures. So does the pride.
"Because it's like a lack of focus for just that short amount of time that you can take for granted," Finney says of the unit's aversion to penalties. "But we're all human. We're all going to make mistakes."
The Wildcats just make fewer than most. Consistently. To wit: Football Outsiders.com use a couple of stats to evaluate line play — Adjusted Line Yards (An opponent-adjusted attempt to give credit to the line for each rush play) and Adjusted Sack Rate (same deal, but with rates of sacks taken per play). According to Bill Connelly, one of the Outsiders' college stat gurus, K-State ranks 34th nationally in Adjusted Line Yards and 46th in Adjusted Sack Rates.
"Both good," Connelly writes, "not great. Klein takes a lot of sacks by hanging in the pocket and waiting to make a play at times (he's improved tremendously from last year, though), so if I'm evaluating KSU's line, I'd probably end up putting it in the 25-40 range for both measures."
Still, those numbers represent a marked improvement over a year ago — in 2011, the K-State front ranked 77th in Adjusted Line Yards and 119th in Adjusted Sack Rate. The pancakes have been coming at a pretty healthy clip on Kimball Avenue this season.
"Oh man, those guys are doing a crazy job," wide receiver Chris Harper gushes.
"Before the season, people were like, ‘Oh, the offensive line is not going to be the (strong point),' but those guys are out there killing guys. That's why John's doing what he's doing, and why Collin's doing what he's doing."