With 28 seconds to play, Hakeem Bailey picked off Skylar Thompson near the goal line to end Thompson’s attempt to stage a fifth career game winning drive as West Virginia Mountaineers upset #24 Kansas State Wildcats 24-20 today at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan.
The drive should have been unnecessary. With 11:27 to play and the Wildcats (6-4, 3-4) leading 20-17, the Mountaineers (4-6, 2-5) were facing 3rd and 22 at the 50. K-State forced Jarret Doege to scramble, and it looked like Doege was just going to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.
Except for one thing: downfield, completely uncovered, was West Virginia receiver Bryce Wheaton. He waltzed in untouched to give the Mountaineers a lead they would not relinquish.
The Wildcats struck first. After forcing a three-and-out on the opening drive, Skylar Thompson connected with Dalton Schoen for a 63-yard touchdown pass on K-State’s first offensive play of the game. But West Virginia responded on a drive which saw every single play except for a lone incompletion go for at least eight yards, tying the game at 7.
K-State came right back, scoring on a 22-yard Blake Lynch field goal. West Virginia marched down and attempted one themselves. Casey Legg missed wide right from 44, but Trey Dishon was called for a personal foul after hitting the long snapper before his head was raised. That gave the Mountaineers a first down at the Wildcat 12, and three plays later they took a 14-10 lead when Doege found George Campbell in the end zone.
On the next drive, Josh Norwood leapt in front of Landry Weber to grab the day’s first interception off Thompson. The defense held, forcing a punt, after which James Gilbert got the drive off to a good start with a 32-yard run -- the longest run from scrimmage against the Mountaineers all season. But the drive stalled out, and K-State was forced to punt. It appeared as if Devin Anctil had pinned West Virginia at their own 2, but the kick was ruled a touchback.
A three-and-out set up a 33-yard field goal by Lynch to make it 14-13, but the defense again failed to halt the Mountaineer offense. Four plays, all at least nine yards, brought West Virginia to the Wildcat 20, and with no time left in the half Legg again missed a field goal, wide left.
K-State ate eight minutes on the opening drive of the second half, scoring on a 3-yard run by Gilbert to retake a 20-14 lead. Legg hit a 51-yard field goal a minute into the final period, and from that point the game was all defense. With about nine minutes left, after Thompson was hit late by Exree Loe on a play in which targeting was overturned, the Wildcats faced 4th-and-12 at the Mountaineer 36, and went for it.
They did not convert, and although the defense did everything they could over the final eight minutes, the field position battle was lost on that play. The final drive started with 2:53 to play at the Wildcat 8, and Thompson did very well getting the Cats close to the red zone before the pick which effectively ended the game.
Thompson had been ridiculously effective through the first drive of the second half, at which point he was 17-21 through the air. The second half, however, was a nightmare, and he ended at 24-39. For the second week in a row, he threw for a career high with 299 yards, but his one touchdown was overshadowed by the two interceptions. He only had 19 yards on the ground, but actually ran for 51 before sacks.
Even so, those 19 yards put Thompson on the precipice of joining an elite club. He is now sitting at 990 career rushing yards. Next week, he’ll almost certainly surpass 1,000; he’ll join Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson, and Collin Klein as K-State’s only 3000/1000 club members.
Schoen led the team in receiving yardage at 84, but only caught two passes; surprisingly, Thompson’s favorite target was Jordon Brown, who caught 5 balls for 32 yards. Phillip Brooks added four catches for 63, and Gilbert also caught four balls out of the backfield.
Malik Knowles was relatively quiet, with three catches for a mere 25 yards. Landry Weber had a couple of catches for 50 yards, and four other players had one catch -- Josh Youngblood, Nick Lenners, Harry Trotter, and Logan Long got his first career reception. On the ground, Gilbert had 60 yards on 13 carries; nobody else cracked the 25-yard mark.
The defense was active; both Reggie Walker and Jordan Mittie recorded two tackles for loss, while Walker and Khalid Duke each had a sack.
K-State amassed 421 yards of offense, and only managed to turn that into 20 points somehow. The Mountaineers had 319, only 85 on the ground.
1) Once again, the defense was feast or famine.
In the first half, the defense was simply atrocious. They did record two of their four three-and-outs during the half, but as noted last week, when they didn’t do that, they performed very badly. Tackling was terrible, and the front seven was getting their lunch eaten. It was bad, and there’s no sugar-coating it.
That said, in the second half the defense was stellar outside of That One Play. In the half, West Virginia was held to only eight yards rushing on 12 carries, and a total of 122 yards. Overall, the effort can’t be faulted. But the breakdown on the Wheaton touchdown was egregious, and ultimately lost this football game.
2) Once again, the offensive game plan was questionable.
After the opening drive, K-State tried entirely too hard to establish the run against a team whose rushing defense is deceptive. West Virginia came into the game ranked ninth in the conference in yards per game allowed -- but they’d also faced 45 more rushing attempts than any team not named Kansas. As a result, the Mountaineers actually came in allowing fewer yards per rush than anyone in the league but TCU, Baylor, and Iowa State.
The results were predictable. K-State only had 122 yards on the day, which is pretty bad considering Gilbert had 32 on one carry. It was 50 fewer yards than the Mountaineers were giving up on average prior to today.
In large part this was because the rushing game plan in the first half was too focused on running straight downhill. In the second half, K-State moved more toward trying the edges, and that worked much better.
3) The penalty on Dishon was also a huge fulcrum in this game.
There was a bit of controversy over the call on Dishon, but ultimately there can’t be much complaint. The rule about not hitting the long snapper before he’s had a chance to get his head back up was a specific point of emphasis just one year ago. It can be argued that Dishon was trying to shoot the gap, but you still can’t hit the long snapper in that situation. Unfortunately, that penalty cost K-State seven points, and is just as much a reason for the loss as That One Play.
4) Third down was once again Wildcat territory.
Even today, K-State owned third down. When they faced it themselves, they were 8-17 (and converted on fourth down once after a miss); when the Mountaineers faced third down, they were only 4-12. If there’s one thing we can hand Chris Klieman over the end of Bill Snyder’s tenure, it’s this: they’re able to get off the field when they have the chance. In the last few years, the biggest problem was being unable to do that very thing.
5) That One Play.
We can’t beat this horse dead enough. The touchdown by Wheaton was so utterly unacceptable, so absolutely atrocious, so devastatingly dumb, that we can’t leave it alone.
The front seven had done a fabulous job on that play. Doege was almost nailed in the pocket, but escaped. Even after that, the pursuit had him in a major bind. All K-State needed to do was have someone on every potential receiver, because there was no way Doege could throw a ball that couldn’t be defended under the pressure he was facing.
But at the moment of decision, three different Wildcats all converged on one receiver, allowing Wheaton to slide behind them completely uncovered. Doege didn’t need to throw an accurate pass at that point. He just had to chuck the ball downfield. Wheaton was just standing there, facing the line of scrimmage, able to make any move he needed to get to the ball if it had been off-target.
Just a terrible, awful play, and a major teaching moment. It’s a shame, too, because outside of That One Play the Mountaineers only managed 184 yards through the air, which is less than K-State’s defense (or any other secondary in the Big 12) averages per game. They played well, except for one crucial moment.
It now looks almost impossible for K-State to get to eight wins, because there’s no way the team that showed up today beats Iowa State. Texas Tech is still a potential win, because Tech has the worst rushing defense in the league outside the state of Kansas, the worst passing defense in the league period (giving up over nine yards per attempt!), and doesn’t run the ball particularly well.
Today was a major disappointment, because this was a game K-State should have dominated. Indeed, they did dominate the stat sheet in nearly every way possible. That they lost was the result of two plays which shouldn’t have happened, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.
But it’s still a loss to a bad team, and there’s no getting around that.