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September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the Big 12

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Lance Dunbar may be an obscure player on an obscure team, but he's surely well-known among Kansas State followers. And they're no doubt delighted they won't ever see him again.

Dunbar is a star tailback at North Texas - that's North Texas - who rushed for 270 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas State last season. Yes, a defense on a bowl-bound Big 12 team was shredded by a tailback on a team that finished next-to-last in the lightly regarded Sun Belt Conference.

Texas A&M vs. Arkansas in Arlington, noon
Texas Tech at Kansas, noon
Baylor at Kansas State, 3:30 p.m.
Ball State at Oklahoma, 7 p.m.
Texas at Iowa State, 7 p.m.
That, perhaps more than anything, illustrated just how dreadful Kansas State's defense was in 2010. The Wildcats were 119th against the run and their defense was among the worst in the nation overall.

Obviously, defense was the major concern for K-State entering this season. But what do you know: Through three games, the unbeaten Wildcats are sixth in the nation in total defense (100 places higher than they finished in 2010) and have allowed just 31 points.

So what's the explanation for the transformation?

"I think we've matured," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "We've gotten a little faster and we've played better up front. We've gotten more sizeable and quicker linebackers, and our secondary certainly gained experience as well.

"There's just a number of things. If you had to identify one, you would probably say the experience factor and maturity factor combined has given us reason to believe we've made improvement."

K-State's defense has a much different look largely because it has a lot of new faces. Four of this season's starters didn't play for the Wildcats last season. A couple of others were reserves a year ago.

[Video: Could a 28-year-old win the Heisman?]

Linebacker Arthur Brown, the team leader in tackles, was a highly regarded recruit out of high school who sat out last season after transferring from Miami. End Adam Davis was a junior college All-American who redshirted in 2010. Tackle Vai Lutui and cornerback Nigel Malone are junior college transfers.

Last season, Emmanuel Lamur was a defensive back most of the year and didn't move to linebacker until late in the season. Sophomore linebacker Tre Walker started just twice a year ago, but he has emerged as a rising star. Walker was named the Big 12's defensive player of the week for his performance in the 28-24 victory over Miami; he had eight tackles, including three in a game-saving goal-line stand in the final minute.

It was one of the best defensive efforts Snyder said he's seen in his 20 years as K-State's coach.

"We've had some exciting games and great performances in the past, but what Trey did - he played sideline to sideline in that series," Snyder said. "Our entire defense played so well. They had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line and to be able to do what they did tells you a great deal about their determination, their spirit and their toughness. It has given us a great deal of confidence."

[Related: Mike Gundy's locker room dance goes viral]

One potential issue is that K-State has faced questionable competition. They opened against FCS Eastern Kentucky and then played MAC also-ran Kent State. Last week's win over Miami was impressive, but questions remain about the Hurricanes' relative strength.

Much more will be known about the Wildcats' defense after this week's game against Baylor, which has scored 154 points in three games behind dangerous quarterback Robert Griffin III. Last season, Griffin passed for 404 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-42 victory over Kansas State.

"He's an extremely talented player," Snyder said. "We all know that and we knew that last year when we played against him.

"I mentioned I think Robert may be the best quarterback in football, exclusive of what level. He can throw it, catch it and run it. He's very hard to defend."

At least this season it appears K-State's defense has a chance.

Best matchup: Baylor's offense vs. Kansas State's defense. Led by Griffin, the Bears are averaging 594 yards to rank second in the nation in total offense. Baylor has exceeded 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time in school history. Meanwhile, Kansas State is ranked sixth in the country in total defense. The Wildcats clinched a victory over Miami last week with a last-minute goal-line stand. They've allowed just 31 points in three games. Something's got to give.

Player on the spot: Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill. He needs to bounce back strong from a dreadful second half in which he threw three interceptions in last week's loss to Oklahoma State. If he has a strong outing, A&M can beat future SEC rival Arkansas. But if he struggles again, the Aggies are in trouble.

Keep an eye on: Iowa State DE Jake Lattimer. Although he'll be giving up more than 50 pounds to the Texas offensive tackles he's facing, Lattimer will be a key figure in the Cyclones' hopes to post a second consecutive upset over the Longhorns. In last season's 28-21 victory in Austin, he had seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He may need a similar effort or at least must hold up against Texas' improved running game.

Numbers game: Missouri K Grant Ressel has converted just 6-of-10 field-goal attempts. His four misses already are more than he had in the past two seasons combined. Ressel was 17-of-19 in 2010 and 26-of-27 in 2009. Three of Ressel's misses this season are from 46 to 48 yards (the other was from 54). Those aren't easy conversions, but in the two previous seasons, he was 8-of-9 from 40-49 yards.

Quotes of the week

"There's more of a swagger. No matter what situation we're in we think we can get out of it." - Iowa State LB Jake Knott, to the Des Moines Register, on the Cyclones' attitude

"Hey, I agree with LSU, the schedule they've played so far. I'm not surprised. I thought it might be by more, even. The schedule they've had, you definitely have to pay attention to." - Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, on LSU moving past Oklahoma to No. 1 in the AP poll.

"Big 12. Big 12. Big 12." - Oklahoma State fans chanting after the Cowboys' 30-29 victory over Texas A&M in College Station. A&M officially announced Monday it was joining the SEC next season

[Related: Former walk-on Jean-Baptiste stars for Baylor]

Poll watch: Half the Big 12's 10 teams are ranked 17th or better in the coaches' poll. Oklahoma remains atop the poll, and that doesn't figure to change with the Sooners at home against Ball State. Oklahoma State, which is idle, has leaped to No. 6. Texas A&M is 13th after its one-point loss to Oklahoma State, but could make a move back toward the top 10 with a victory over Arkansas on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium. Baylor is 16th and Texas is 17th. Both figure to stay there at least another week, but if either is upset this week, it could be replaced in the rankings by its opponent. Baylor faces unbeaten Kansas State and Texas plays unbeaten Iowa State.

Etc.: Baylor's ranking of No. 15 in The Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the coaches' poll is the highest the Bears have been ranked since October 1991, when they finished 8-4. Baylor has not managed as many as eight wins in a season since. … Oklahoma C Ben Habern is expected to be out at least eight weeks with a broken forearm. Sophomore G Gabe Ikard will move over to take his place. OT Jarvis Jones is ready to return after missing the first three games with a torn ACL suffered in the spring. OT Daryl Williams, who has missed two games with a high ankle sprain, may be back this week. … Oklahoma State has lost G Jonathan Rush (knee) and CB Devin Hedgepeth (Achilles) for the rest of the season. But LB Tyler Johnson, who has not played this season because of sprained knee, could see action when the Cowboys play at Kansas on Oct. 8. … Texas S Nolan Brewster's career has ended because of repeated concussions. Meanwhile, S Christian Scott has rejoined the Longhorns after sitting out a three-game suspension. …Texas A&M CB Coryell Judie (strained hamstring) is questionable for this week's game against Arkansas. He did not play in last week's loss to Oklahoma State. … Kansas WR Daymond Patterson will miss the rest of the season with a groin injury. … Iowa State is 3-0 despite averaging 85 penalty yards per game (119th in the nation) and committing 10 turnovers (tied for 103rd). The Cyclones also are 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions. … Baylor QB Robert Griffin III has thrown more touchdown passes (13) than incompletions (12). … Texas Tech DE Leon Mackey is expected to play this week. He's been out since Sept. 3 with a partially collapsed lung. But WR Darrin Moore, Texas Tech's leading receiver, is doubtful with a twisted right knee and left ankle. He is expected back in the lineup against Texas A&M on Oct. 8. … Missouri QB James Franklin has thrown for 856 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions over the past three games. … Kansas State freshman WR Tyler Lockett became the third member of his family to catch a touchdown pass for the Wildcats, joining his father, Kevin, and his uncle, Aaron. … Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden set school single-game records for passing attempts (60), completions (47) and passing yards (438) in the victory over Texas A&M. … A&M TB Cyrus Gray had his streak of nine consecutive 100-yard rushing games come to an end. He rushed for just 35 yards against Oklahoma State. … K-State sophomore TB John Hubert is coming off a career-high 166-yard rushing performance, which included a career-long 47-yard run, against Miami. … Missouri RB Henry Josey has rushed for 490 yards in the last three games. He has four rushing touchdowns and they have come on plays that have averaged 35.5 yards. He has scored on runs of 48 yards vs. Oklahoma and 68, 21 and 6 yards vs. Western Illinois. … Nine players have scored touchdowns for Kansas. … Oklahoma State has posted eight consecutive road victories. … Texas Tech sophomore Ben McRoy last week set a school single-game record with 203 yards on kickoff returns in a narrow win over Nevada.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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