MANHATTAN, Kan. — You can beat a Gus Malzahn team that’s got its mojo working, honest, but you’ll need one of two things. Or, preferably, both:
1. A rainstorm;
2. A quarterback who can chuck it ’til the clock runs out.
No. 5 Auburn, Kansas State’s dance partner Thursday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, has lost two games since August 2013. One came at then-No. 6 LSU, 35-21. The other was in the final BCS title game, last January, against Florida State, 34-31. The Bayou Bengals ran for 228 yards, threw for 229, and roared to a 21-0 halftime lead in a game played under various levels of downpour. The Seminoles ran for 148, threw for 237, and needed a 100-yard kickoff return and Jameis Winston shutting his trap and opening up his arm to rally his team from a 21-3 second-quarter deficit.
If you’re playing for keeps, the minimum number on the table is 34. Set the score so high that Nick Marshall will have to air it out repeatedly in order to get there, or trade punches for four hours, and hope you’re the one who gets to land the last, definitive shot.
Either way, it’s your move, Tyler Lockett. Your stage, Deante Burton. Your time, Jake Waters.
"Jake’s a really, really cool guy, especially with his receivers," said Burton, the Wildcats’ 6-foot-2 sophomore wideout and third-leading pass-catcher on the young season (five receptions). "And it’s something that you respect, just because of how he works and his efforts. So, definitely, we throw a lot. We have so many periods when we pass; we have so many periods when we do this or that. And so not only that, but maybe after (practice), if we’re off on a route, we can throw it a couple times."
Stephen F. Austin was about working out the kinks. Iowa State was about tasting heat on the road in the Big 12, what it’s like to fight with your shoulders pinned to the canvas. Auburn is about showing the world that you can throw down with the biggest boys on the block, that there’s more to this offense than just Lockett making magic, time and again, with his hands and his toes.
"I definitely think that we have a chance, that we can be the best receiving group in the Big 12, and possibly the nation," Burton said. "That’s the goal we set for ourselves, and we’re not going to settle for anything less."
Well. Alrighty, then.
"We’re going to push it to that level every day," Burton continued. "We know that, when it’s all said and done, teams will look at us on film and say, ‘Those boys can play.’ And that ‘Those boys, they come out, whether it be a run or whether it be a pass, they’re going to give it 100 percent and they’re going to come after you.’ And I think that’s something from coach (Andre) Coleman, something that we get from him, and I think that’s something we push for on the whole as a group."
This week, this night, this platform, is where they can prove it. At this stage of the season, the jury’s still out: The Wildcats head into Thursday ranked fifth in the Big 12 in terms of passing efficiency (142.3) and 56th nationally. K-State sits 14th nationally in passer rating on second down (182.94), notching a first-down conversion on 10 of 22 — 45.5 percent — second-down pass attempts.
The flip side: K-State’s passing offense ranks 97th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs when it comes to passing efficiency on third down (94.92) and 101st in terms of completion percentage (46.2), just ahead of Kansas (45.0).
"I feel the competition is always going on, but it’s a healthy competition," Burton said. "Whenever we’re on the field, we push each other. It’s one of those things where, ‘Hey, if this guy’s caught three touchdowns today, I’ve got to go get me some. I’ve got to push myself up.’
"And then you counteract that with (us) getting into films more and we’re learning more (from each) other. I could watch guys like Tyler and Kody (Cook) and Curry (Sexton) and they’re like, ‘Hey, that was a good move, why did you do that?’ And I can do the same exact thing with them. So that makes us a better receiving group as a whole."
Like Lockett, Burton bleeds purple — he attended Manhattan (Kan.) High School, where he shined as a do-everything, all-state defensive back/receiver/return specialist. A 6-foot-2, physical target with granite shoulders and soft hands, Burton had the kind of skill and frame to fit in anywhere, and UCLA and Oklahoma State invited him to follow the yellow brick road out of town.
"It’s been pretty cool to have everyone around," said Burton, who debuted on K-State’s special teams last fall. "To have everyone here to see the growth I’ve made."
Especially Lockett, the gold standard. Lockett, the friend. Lockett, the mentor.
"You can run over and ask (Tyler) a question, and he’ll give you the exact answer, and he’ll tell you what you want," Burton said of the Wildcats’ All-American receiver. "And sometimes, it’s not what you want to hear. And he’s way more helpful off the field. Just dealing with, whether it be pressure, it be school, whether it be family, you know you can sit down, you can talk to him about anything. Really good guy.
"He’s more of a teacher, I think — a guy you can use. But most of us other guys, we like to push each other to get better, but (Lockett) pushes us. And we can, in retrospect, push him. Because no one’s perfect."
For one evening, though, it might help to be close. A little rain couldn’t hurt, either.