A 41-yard Alex Barnes touchdown on fourth-and-inches early in the fourth quarter gave Kansas State Wildcats the breathing room they needed, and a strangling 99-yard drive aided by personal fouls on an undisciplined UCLA Bruins squad iced the cake as K-State overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to post a 35-17 win in the 2017 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix.
The tide turned immediately after halftime. After UCLA (6-7, 4-5 Pac 12) burned nine plays without even reaching midfield after taking the second half kickoff, Alex Delton got the half off to a good start, leading K-State (8-5, 5-4 Big 12) on an 8-play, 74-yard drive culminating with him scoring on fourth-and-inches from the jumbo set.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Denzel Goolsby ripped the ball away from Bolu Olorunfunmi, giving the Wildcats the ball at the UCLA 22. Four plays later, Delton hit Dominique Heath for an 8-yard score, and in less than 150 seconds K-State had turned a 17-7 deficit into a 21-17 lead.
The game started slowly, as both teams had to give up the ball early on their first drives. UCLA pinned K-State inside their own five punting with a short field, but a 26-yard scamper by Barnes got K-State moving. Unfortunately, the first mistake of the game belonged to the Wildcats, as Thompson was picked off at the UCLA 30.
UCLA scored on a 44-yard J.J. Molson field goal 12 plays later, and when K-State’s offense returned to the field Alex Delton was under center. Two plays later, Delton broke a K-State bowl record in one play, breaking free for a 68-yard touchdown run. It broke the previous record of 52-yards, which was also not set by a running back; it was Dominique Heath’s end-around last year in the Texas Bowl.
K-State’s secondary reared its head on the ensuing drive, with Jordan Lasley doing the damage. First, it was a 16-yard catch on 2nd-and-17 in which Lasley barely got a foot in bounds; then he caught a screen pass from Devon Modster and got loose for a 52-yard touchdown to regain the lead for the Bruins.
Thompson returned, but K-State chose to try and throw the ball three straight times. It wasn’t very successful, and the Cats had to punt. Modster immediately dropped a dime to Theo Howard, an 86-yard bomb on play action.
The teams traded punts, and Delton returned. It paid dividends, as his legs earned first down after first down, but that only got the ball to midfield, where the drive stalled and halftime ensued.
Although K-State was torched in the air in the first half, the defense absolutely strangled the Bruins in the second. UCLA had 215 yards passing in the first half; they had 80 the rest of the way. They had 264 total yards in the first half, and only 100 in the second. 49 yards rushing in the first half... 20 in the second.
That’s an effort.
K-State, for their part, amassed 423 yards of offense on the night, 344 of it on the ground. Delton had 158 yards -- a K-State bowl record, and also the best single-game Wildcat performance this season — on 20 carries with three touchdowns. Barnes added 117 on 12 carries with a score. Isaiah Zuber was K-State’s third-leading rusher with 37 yards.
Delton also had a passable night through the air, going 7-10 for 52 yards. Most of that action went to Heath, who finished with 5 catches and a touchdown.
We’re not going to bother with what we learned, because it doesn’t matter; the season’s over. So instead... our MVPs:
5. Isaiah Zuber
That 37 yards? It an end-around was on K-State’s second play of the second half, and it ignited the offense. It was the only line on the stat sheet for Zuber tonight, but it was a big one.
4. Denzel Goolsby
Goolsby’s strip-and-recover was a critical play, and it wasn’t even all Goolsby did on the night. Indeed, he went to the locker room after UCLA’s opening drive, but returned to make a big tackle for loss shortly afterward.
3. Jayd Kirby
Yep. No kidding. Kirby was everywhere tonight, especially in run defense — but he also made some very important tackles before the sticks on pass plays, which is a thing with which he had an issue earlier in the season. Goolsby earned the official defensive MVP honors tonight, but Kirby’s overall performance was more important.
2. Alex Barnes
His 41-yard scamper basically ended the game, and that’s about as big as a shiny thing can get.
1. Alex Delton
What can we really say? Delton, coming back from injury, was the weapon this team needed against the 127th-ranked run defense in the nation. It’s not surprising at all that Skylar Thompson was less than effective, although the pattern in which the coaching staff attempted to use him was questionable. But “run on UCLA” was always going to be a winning hand.
In the process, Delton set TWO K-State bowl rushing records. It’s no surprise that he won the official offensive MVP honors tonight.
And that does it for 2017. There’s still the question of whether this was Bill Snyder’s last game, whether Winston Dimel will return, who will be the offensive coordinator if Snyder does return, and whether this was quietly the final game for D.J. Reed and/or Dalton Risner.
But those are questions for later. For now, it’s time to party, as K-State has won consecutive bowl games for the first time since the Jonathan Beasley era.