When all seems lost, revert to what you’ve always done best: run the ball and play defense.
K-State (3-4, 1-3) did both of those things in spades this afternoon, rushing for 291 yards and holding a powerful Oklahoma State offense to a mere 311 yards as they pulled away in the second half for a satisfying 31-12 Homecoming victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
At halftime, things were still very much up in the air. The Cowboys (4-3, 1-3) took a 6-3 lead into the locker room, and got the ball to start the second half. But they would come up empty in the third quarter while Alex Barnes scored twice to post the Cats to a 17-6 lead. Oklahoma State did finally reach the end zone half a minute into the fourth quarter, but missed a two-point conversion thanks to Duke Shelley which forced them into a two-score comeback try.
But K-State just rammed the ball down the throat of the Cowboys from that point forward. Barnes scored his third touchdown of the afternoon on an 8-yard run, untouched, with 9:41 to play; that gave K-State a 24-12 lead and put the Cowboys in a position where they had to stop the Cats twice in nine minutes despite being utterly unable to stop the run game all day. Sure enough, when Oklahoma State wasted four minutes and failed to score on the ensuing drive, Barnes made them pay with his fourth score to seal the victory. Shelley’s second interception of the day followed shortly thereafter, and the Cats knelt the clock out.
Barnes had himself a day, and has in fact had himself ten straight quarters. Today, all Barnes did was run for 181 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries. Since halftime of the Texas game, Barnes has run for 511 yards and eight scores in just 150 minutes; to put this in perspective that’s a pace of nearly 2,500 yards and 38 touchdowns over a full season.
And today, he was also K-State’s leading receiver, with three catches for 51 yards. That gave him 232 yards of total offense on the day.
Skylar Thompson was, to be fair and accurate, terrible in the first half. But he was much more effective in the second, finishing 11-22 for 130 yards and getting his game QBR up to almost 100 (99.6). He added 80 yards on the ground himself, showing a good instinct for tucking and running that he’s sometimes lacked.
Isaiah Zuber had three catches for 51 yards, Isaiah Harris also had three for 16. Blaise Gammon (!) caught a pass for a key first down on K-State’s final real drive, and Dalvin Warmack had a real impact in the game this week: eight carries for 32 yards and one catch for 18.
What did we learn?
1) Alex Barnes is a small godlike creature.
But we already knew that.
2) Duke Shelley is really coming into his own.
As noted, Shelley had two picks and a huge pass breakup in the end zone on Oklahoma State’s two-point attempt in the fourth quarter. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Shelley was everywhere, even when he wasn’t making a tackle or breaking up a pass. He was a factor throughout, much like Eli Walker has been in weeks past.
3) The rest of the defense was on fire today.
The numbers themselves are notable. Keeping Oklahoma State to 311 yards when they’ve been averaging well over 500 a game is a huge victory.
But it’s more than that. Oklahoma State had four plays of over 20 yards, two for over 40, and still only picked up 311. None of the big plays ended in the end zone. The secret:
K-State, after a week in which they appeared to regress horribly, put on their best tackling performance since the Arthur Brown era. By your benevolent despot’s count, on the entire day there were two plays in which a K-State defender actually had a hand on an Oklahoma State ball carrier without bringing him down.
Yes, some plays were busted; the Cowboys found a hole to get through untouched or hit an open receiver. But you can’t blame the players much for those occasions. They came to play, and when they individually had a chance to make a stop, they made it almost without exception.
4) The offensive line may be fixed now, too.
Line play was pretty much brilliant today. Thompson did eat two sacks, but in both cases the line themselves can’t be blamed; one was an rusher coming in from the blind side without having been accounted for in the scheme, and the other was basically a coverage sack.
Thompson had trouble throwing in the first half, but it was not because he didn’t have time. His accuracy improved in the second half, but what didn’t change was the time he had to throw. The line also opened copious holes for Barnes, especially on the Mitchell-Risner side of the line.
Perhaps most importantly, Adam Holtorf really picked up his game today, and it was noticeable.
5) Bowl hopes, previously dead, are now undead.
K-State still has to win three more games, and they’ve got Oklahoma to deal with. But Kansas is still out there, a surprisingly down TCU squad is still out there, a snake-bitten Iowa State squad is still out there, and Kliff Kingsbury is still out there.
Even with today’s performance, only one of those four non-Sooner games is probably a sure win. But the other three now seem like they could all be winnable. It’s still a stretch, because despite Iowa State and Texas Tech’s experiences with K-State they’re both very much improved over last year.
But it’s now back within the realm of possibility, something which would not be true if K-State hadn’t sacked up and did the job today. Not only that, the Cats are now looking down at two Big 12 teams, as the win technically puts them ahead of the Pokes in the standings.
And now they’ve got a week off to get healthy. We’ll see what happens.