That’s because the bulk of Chris Klieman’s winning record was amassed at Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse North Dakota State, where the 52-year-old led the Bison to four national championships in five seasons.
Now, a little more than a year after Klieman was hired to replace legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, he has a chance to check off one last milestone in a year that burst with newness in Tuesday’s Liberty Bowl bout against Navy.
“It would finish the chapter, finish the story,” Klieman said.
Klieman’s first year at Kansas State has been one of the more noteworthy stories in college football this season. A hire with no previous links to the program and minimal experience at the sport’s top tier, Klieman shook off detractors, got his senior class on board and led Kansas State to an 8-4 record, tallying the most wins of any first-year coach in program history.
He logged the Wildcats’ first win in 12 tries at an SEC venue with a victory over Mississippi State in September, and he notched his first statement win with a victory against Oklahoma in November.
Klieman now has a chance to close December by guiding Kansas State to its first nine-win season since 2016. All he has to do is climb one final mountain and topple Navy’s triple-option offense.
It’s not the first time Klieman has faced the triple option — he has coached against Georgia Southern, and his defensive coordinator, Scottie Hazelton, has experience going up against Air Force from his days at Wyoming — but preparing for the Midshipmen (10-2) has been a unique challenge these past few weeks. Klieman’s Kansas State team prefers to run the ball, but in the pass-happy Big 12, his defense hasn’t faced a running game as strong or as multifaceted as Navy’s all year.
Nor have the Wildcats faced any runner as talented as Mids senior quarterback Malcolm Perry, who is averaging 150.3 rushing yards per game and has 21 rushing touchdowns this season, which ties him for third in the nation.
“It’s a total different preparation. There’s not one call that we’ve made throughout 12 games and ‘X’ amount of snaps that we’re going to make on Tuesday,” Klieman said. “It’s a brand new defense, and I think the fortunate thing is we didn’t play them on December 17 or have three days to prepare. We’ve had ample time to prepare to try to come up with plan A and plan B, so to speak. They’ve seen everything. Nothing’s going to surprise Navy. Nothing surprises any team that runs these offenses. I’ve been fortunate enough to play against a number of teams that run the option, and no matter what you throw at them, they just open up the page and say, ‘This is how you attack it.’ ”
Kansas State will counterattack with speedy runners of its own: running back James Gilbert (69.8 rushing yards per game and six rushing touchdowns) and quarterback Skylar Thompson (33.5 rushing yards per game and 10 rushing touchdowns).
Thompson also averages 182.6 passing yards and has thrown for 12 touchdowns, giving the Wildcats a versatility that Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has had to plan for.
Although Tuesday will be the first time Navy and Kansas State have met — the Mids haven’t played any Big 12 team since 2009, when they beat current SEC member Missouri in the Texas Bowl — Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo sees a little more familiarity in the matchup than Klieman does.
In part because they’re so run-heavy, the Wildcats are like the Mids in that they dominate time of possession. The Wildcats rank fourth in the country in that stat, holding the ball for an average of 34:16 per game — even more than Navy’s 33:14. That means the Mids can count on getting precious few snaps Tuesday, just as they often do in the Army-Navy game.
Just as it is for Kansas State, Tuesday’s game is about finishing with a flourish for Navy. The Mids have a chance to tie the program record of 11 wins set in 2015 and end the year in the Associated Press rankings for just the third time in the past 56 years.
Klieman, on the other hand, is fishing for one final first.
“Everything that I’ve done since I’ve taken over this position a little over a year ago now has been a first for me. I don’t care if it’s a first spring ball to a first media day to a first bowl experience,” Klieman said. “For starters, I couldn’t be more thrilled that we’re part of a bowl game. There wasn’t a ton of expectations, other than the people in our locker room, that we would be playing postseason football. . . . Without a question, [a win] would end the journey.”
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