Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads knows he has to stop Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas for his team to move to 2-1 on Saturday in Kansas City.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder knows it, too. And he's trying to make sure that's not all Rhoads' team has to do.
Last year at Arrowhead Stadium, the Cyclones held Thomas, the Big 12's rushing leader in 2009, to just 96 yards on 25 carries but lost on a blocked extra point. He might take a similar performance by his defense this year, but he's quite aware of what he'll face on Saturday.
"He combines both power and elusiveness, and that’s a heck of a combination. Usually when you’ve got a big physical back, he’s more of a north-south type of guy. Our guy, Alexander Robinson would probably rather make you miss," Rhoads said. "He can do both. To do that with his size and speed combination is scary."
Thomas, at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, topped 90 yards in eight of 12 games last season. Already this year, he's put up 234 yards against UCLA and another 137 against Missouri State. That's made him college football's No. 3 rusher, up from No. 21 a year ago.
"He finds places to run the ball that, maybe a year ago, he wasn’t struggling with, but maybe wasn’t as quick to react to," Snyder said.
But the worst-kept secret in the Big 12 is stopping Thomas means stopping Kansas State. In games Thomas failed to top 90 yards, the Wildcats were 0-4. Iowa State came close. They also came close to winning. Which, in a tight Big 12 North race, doesn't mean much.
"We tackled well in the game and certainly you go into every game, and we go into this one especially, with a plan to stop the run. And have enough people close to the line of scrimmage and near the football to be able to do that," Rhoads said of last year's loss. "I don’t think we have any type of magic formula, I think we’re going to have to play better this year than we did a year ago, as a year more in a system, you have a better understanding of where your running lanes are and where you need to be, and he clearly does."
And for Kansas State, that's the challenge. Because of Thomas' success, they threw the ball the fewest times of any team in the Big 12. Because of that, they threw just seven touchdown passes, six fewer than the No. 11 team and 31 fewer than the No. 1 team.
It's tough to blame to 6-6 Wildcats for strapping their fate to the back of their workhorse, but the task this year is to turn that worst-kept secret into a fallacy.
The man who can do it is quarterback Carson Coffman, benched in mid-season last year for Grant Gregory. Coffman played through sickness in the first game, and threw for a career-high 280 yards against Missouri State in last week's 48-24 win. He's also the league's leader in passing efficiency through two games. His four touchdowns have already equaled his total from last season.
"When we put him on the field a year ago, he had not been a starting quarterback, so he really had not had a great deal of playing time and certainly had not had playing time in critical situations in close ball games, et cetera," Snyder said. "I think the experience has helped him, the experience both on the field and experience with the system, having different terminology as opposed to what he’d become accustomed to previously."
That's been apparent early in the season, after Coffman beat out Collin Klein and Sammuel Lamur to re-win the job. Now they'll need him to continue to show that improvement in conference play, so maybe this year, stopping Thomas doesn't mean stopping the Wildcats.