For forty-five minutes, the Kansas State Wildcats looked like they might not even be the best football team in Kansas. With twelve fourth-quarter points, Isaiah Zuber saved K-State from disaster.
Zuber broke free for an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown with 12 minutes to go, and followed that five minutes later with a brilliant catch at the back of the end zone of a pass by Skylar Thompson — evoking memories of the end of the last football game in Manhattan. After a disastrous failure to run out the clock, K-State managed to keep South Dakota from scoring and escaped with a 27-24 victory when Mason Lorber’s 51-yard field goal attempt plinked off the crossbar and bounced back instead of forward.
Sadly, that’s almost all that can be said about this game that was good.
K-State was unable to find the end zone in the first three quarters, forced to settle for four field goals by redshirt freshman Blake Lynch. The fourth of those gave the Wildcats a 12-10 lead late in the first half, but South Dakota scored a touchdown on a drive aided by a double penalty on K-State on a play which erased an Eli Walker interception — pass interference on Walter Neil, and unsportsmanlike conduct on Walker for spiking the ball after the play. On the first play after the kickoff, Alex Gray intercepted Alex Delton and scored, and suddenly the Coyotes led 24-12.
The defense did its job in the third quarter, allowing the offense to finally get untracked. But in most respects it was a bad night for the Wildcats when they had the ball.
Alex Barnes, at one point, had 14 yards on nine carries; he, too, got uncorked in the fourth quarter and broke a 34-yard run on the first play of the drive which led to Zuber’s touchdown catch. Barnes had two fumbles on the night, the second of which came with only 50 seconds left in the game and immediately after a first down appeared to have iced the contest. In the end, Barnes had 21 carries for 103 yards, so on the surface everything looks fine. But there are concerns.
Skylar Thompson got the start, but couldn’t get things moving and yielded to Delton after two possessions. Delton provided some initial spark, but also threw the second-quarter interception which put K-State behind the eight ball. They switched back and forth, with Thompson recording a 8-14 night with only 61 yards and an interception himself, plus 58 yards rushing. Delton was 5-14 for 91 with a pick and 78 on the ground.
Dalvin Warmack was the only other ball-carrier on the night; he added 2 carries for 17 yards, giving the team a total of 256. That’s a moderately positive sign. The Wildcats had 408 total yards compared to 334 for the Coyotes.
Zuber led the way with both five catches and 68 yards. Dalton Schoen was not invisible; he had three catches for 54 yards, including a team-high 27-yard catch. Zach Reuter caught a couple of short passes, and Warmack and Barnes combined for four receptions. Also of note: Chabastin Taylor sighting, although he was unable to haul in any balls.
The offensive line was, in a word, horrible for most of the game, showing no sign of being the experienced and talented group Wildcat fans have come to expect.
And while the defense was for the most part solid — more than solid in the rushing game as they held the Coyotes to only 77 yards on the ground — there was one critical failing which single-handedly kept South Dakota in the game. Coyote receiver Levi Falck caught 11 balls for 140 yards, extending drives repeatedly; Duke Shelley seemed incapable of handling him.
So, what did we learn tonight?
1. This team wasn’t prepared.
The first half was, putting it mildly, a comedy of mistakes. The players seemed somewhat lethargic on offense, and K-State racked up an absurd 13 penalties for 129 yards. This is not what we expect from a Wildcat squad, especially when they’ve had all of fall camp to prepare.
2. The quarterback question is still unanswered.
Thompson got the start, but the hook was quick. If we’re being honest, it’s almost impossible to tell after this game which of the two might deserve the nod going forward. Delton passed better than one might have expected, but that’s hardly saying much. Thompson ran better than one might have expected, but again... faint praise.
What we do know at this point from experience is that Delton is usually more comfortable in the first half, and Thompson has now just led his fourth comeback win as a Wildcat. Make of that what you will.
3) The defense is alright.
Yes, Shelley got burned. Yes, the 30-yard double penalty was a shriek-inducing tragedy. But overall, the defense showed some go. We finally got to see DaQuan Patton do his thing, and while he only recorded four tackles he was a presence throughout. Reggie Walker (with a big assist from Jordan Mittie) had a big sack in the South Dakota possession after K-State took the lead, and had three hurries on the night — as did Kyle Ball.
And Kevion McGee, who we hardly expected to make a huge impact this season? All he did was lead the team with four pass break-ups, although he did commit a key pass interference penalty in the final seconds which very nearly allowed South Dakota to at least force overtime.
We mentioned the rush defense, and while South Dakota did rack up 257 passing yards, take away Falck’s 140 and it doesn’t look bad at all.
4) We have special teams!
Lynch, who seriously just won the job this week, was a pro. Andrew Hicks did a fine job stepping into the punting role. Shelley and Zuber were great in the return game; what we haven’t yet mentioned was the touchdown return Shelley had which was called back due to a penalty.
5) ESPN still has no idea how to properly scale ESPN3 for opening weekend.
Once again, Wildcat fans were forced to miss most of the first quarter because ESPN can’t get their act together. This is getting to be a tired refrain, and if ESPN can’t do their jobs Gene Taylor needs to consider alternatives.
Player(s) of the Game
We have to give this to two guys tonight. For two-plus hours, it looked like Lynch was the only guy any rational being could consider. But Zuber’s fourth-quarter fireworks justify a shared award on this night.