In just five years at North Dakota State, Chris Klieman established a force in the North Dakota State football program. His Bison teams were national title contenders every single year he was at the helm, and they achieved that goal in four campaigns.
Klieman decided to build on his success and take a shot at FBS football with Kansas State, filling the void left by Bill Snyder’s retirement. He inherited a team filled with experienced talent, including five redshirt seniors starting on the offensive line, and eight overall on the offense.
“They’re a veteran team, they play extremely disciplined,” said WVU coach Neal Brown. “I think that’s been the culture in that program for a long time, really during Coach [Bill] Snyder’s tenure there both times they were really disciplined.”
The Wildcats are fourth in the conference in penalties — 54 accepted flags for 462 yards — but much of their discipline shows when the pressure ramps up, especially on defense. They are the best in the Big 12 on third and fourth downs defensively, and have allowed the fewest red zone touchdowns as well with just 12, keeping teams to just field goals 22 times.
It starts up front for KSU, as Brown says the Wildcats may boast one of, or if not, the best defensive lines that the Mountaineers will face all year.
“I would put them right up against the guys at Baylor, who are the top defensive ends that we’ve played so far in the conference,” he said.
While he doesn’t fall under that “veteran” category, sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert leads that effort, with his team-leading 5 sacks putting him as the no. 5 Big 12 sack-getter.
Skylar Thompson is in his third year as the Wildcats’ steady quarterback, and he seems to have made himself comfortable with Coach Klieman. While he is far from the most prolific, he has thrown just one interception this year and helped KSU to an upset over Oklahoma with a nearly mistake-free performance.
“He is playing really under control,” Brown said. “He’s calm, he’s been really good on third down, he can run…and he’s done a good job of throwing the ball effectively downfield.”
The Wildcat offense, though, goes through their run game, as demonstrated in their loss against Texas in Austin. With just 54 yards on the ground against the Longhorns, Kansas State was held to just 24 points — both marks are well below their respective averages of 198.8 and 32.2.
When the run game is on, though, senior James Gilbert carries most of the load — but his status, along with those of running backs Joe Ervin and Jordon Brown, are currently up in the air for Saturday.
Regardless of who lines up, the WVU coaching staff says this offensive scheme will be the most complicated one they will face all year.
“You know, most teams have like two or three protections. Theirs is exponential,” said WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “The number of formations, the number of looks. They run a triple option basically out of a three-back offense. Really impressive what they’ve done and what they’ve been doing.”
Klieman has been able to put all of these pieces together to earn six wins so far this year, earning their bowl eligibility. On top of that, they’ve already earned the title of “spoiler” after upsetting No. 5 Oklahoma at home, and despite a tough loss to the Longhorns, that was on the tail end of a three-game Wildcat winning streak.
“I think Coach Klieman has that football team playing very well right now,” Brown said.