A Kansas State team that needed to run the ball to win only got 166 yards from its quarterback and running backs.
That same team, so dependent on shutting down the opponent’s rushing attack, didn’t really do so, giving up 144 yards on only 28 attempts.
So what the heck happened here?
The simple answer: explosion. Before last night’s 33-28 win over Texas A&M in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, K-State had only managed two plays all year of 50 or more yards. They matched that last night, with Jesse Ertz hitting Byron Pringle for a 79-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 52-yard jet sweep by wideout Dominique Heath just before halftime.
In the end, though, it was indeed the usual components that sealed the victory. A pair of 20-yard runs by Ertz — the second of which put him over the 1000-yard mark for the season — led to a one-yard Ertz plunge which put the Wildcats up by 12 with nine minutes to go. And after A&M responded within 70 seconds to get back to within five, it was the run defense which finally came up with a critical stop, stuffing Keith Ford for a loss in the red zone. That left the Aggies facing fourth and 8 from the 23, and a corner blitz by Cre Moore hurried Trevor Knight into a bad throw which harmlessly bounced off the turf.
After that, it was again the legs of Ertz which picked up the all-important first down that allowed K-State to run out the clock.
Still, without the uncharacteristic first-half fireworks, the Wildcats would have been playing comeback in the second half. A&M’s defense did a solid job against the K-State running attack, limiting the Cats to just over four yards a carry with the exception of Heath’s jet sweep. On drives where K-State tried and failed to throw the ball on first down, this led to short possessions.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, the passing game suddenly clicked. Ertz was 14 of 20 for 195 yards, his best passing performance since the season opener at Stanford. Again, the yardage itself was pedestrian aside from the big play to Pringle; it was the effectiveness Ertz demonstrated that kept drives moving.
Another huge key to the game was a player who could arguably have been named the game’s MVP: Scott Frantz. Assigned the task of blocking Aggie All-American Myles Garrett, Frantz was virtually perfect. Garrett was limited to a single tackle on the night, and his lack of presence in the backfield was a critical absence for the A&M defense.
In the end, K-State largely outplayed A&M both tactically and physically. Yes, A&M’s receivers were able to do work against the Wildcat secondary, thanks to their size and talent. But K-State had the advantage in the trenches, and — to the surprise of nearly everyone, K-State observers included — the two big plays were the result of Pringle and Heath simply having a clear and obvious speed advantage on the Aggie defenders.
With that, the transition begins anew. We bid farewell to some important pieces: newly minted K-State single-season sack leader Jordan Willis, who ended the night with 13.5 in the books. Wideout Deante Burton, who was sometimes frustrating but proved to be a dependable option in his senior campaign. Dante Barnett, whose final year wasn’t what he’d have hoped, but who gave the program a great career. Charles Jones, overshadowed by new talent this year but still a three-year starter. Charmeachalle Moore and Donny Starks, who were in many ways part of the glue that bound the defense. Colborn Couchman, everpresent playmaker on special teams. Terrale Johnson, thankfully the only key member of the offensive line graduating. Joe Hubener and Ian Patterson.
And Elijah Lee, who dropped a small bomb by announcing that he would be talking over his options with his family before deciding whether to return for his senior year.
So much returns, but the losses are not insignificant. The pieces are there for a run in 2017, although the linebacking corps may be suspect, especially if Lee departs. We may see K-State resort to playing real Big 12 football next season, with a track meet every weekend.
For now, though, we’ll just bask in yet another season sweep of the Texas schools, and the championship belt of the state. It’s a good feeling. Enjoy it.