You’d think if a game was going to be partially decided by wind, the Cyclones would have the advantage.
Unfortunately for Iowa State, when your offense is predicated on the pass the wind is a bad thing. Brock Purdy, who’d been throwing for over 300 yards a game, was limited to a mere 185 tonight by a stingy Kansas State defense which also bottled up the Cyclone running attack. The result: a 27-17 win at Bill Snyder Family Stadium which propelled the Wildcats to an eight-win season under Chris Klieman, the most wins ever by a first-year head coach in K-State history.
The Wildcats (8-4, 5-4) got on the board the first chance they got for the third time this season as Joshua Youngblood returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, his third such return this season and a K-State freshman record. Sixteen minutes later, Jacardia Wright — who will still be a freshman next year thanks to the four-game redshirt rule — ended a 13-play 85-yard drive which gobbled up almost seven minutes by scoring his first career touchdown on a 12-yard run to put the Wildcats up 14-0.
Three plays later, Wayne Jones appeared to have intercepted Purdy deep in Iowa State territory, but the ball squirted loose as he went to the ground. The wheels fell off the wagon for K-State for the rest of the half. Joe Rivera pinned the Cats inside their own 10 for the fourth straight time on a 65-yard punt, K-State went three-and-out, and Devin Anctil answered with his own 64-yard punt but had to make the tackle himself at the end of a 36-yard return. The Cyclones (7-5, 5-4) drove for a touchdown and then kept K-State from crossing midfield; after a touchback, Purdy amassed a third of his yardage for the entire night on one play, a 60-yard completion to Tarique Milton. That set up a second score for Iowa State, and the teams went into the locker room tied at 14.
The Wildcat defense forced two consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half. Unfortunately, Skylar Thompson fumbled on the third play of K-State’s first possession of the half, and threw an interception on the first play of the second. What could have been a disastrous sequence was blunted when the defense forced Iowa State to settle for a field goal with 6:49 left in the third quarter.
Iowa State would not score again.
The Wildcats responded with a clutch drive in which Thompson got most of his passing yardage for the night which set up a 43-yard Blake Lynch field goal. That kick was launched into a howling wind which was rapidly blowing trash toward the line of scrimmage from the end zone.
The defense forced yet another three-and-out, and Rivera shanked a punt which gave the Wildcats the ball at their own 47. The K-State running game went to work. Thompson did not attempt a pass during an 8-play drive which chewed up four and a half minutes to regain the lead at 24-17.
Iowa State shot themselves in the foot on the ensuing drive, but the Wildcat defense was still solid as well, and with seven minutes remaining the Cyclones were compelled to punt again, resulting in another shank by Rivera which bounced off a Wildcat and was smartly pounced on by Philip Brooks. Starting at their own 44, K-State again ran the ball down the Cyclones’ throats, starting with K-State’s longest play from scrimmage the entire night — a 37 yard explosion from Wright which put the Wildcats in the red zone. Chris Klieman then opted for conservatism, settling for another field goal by Lynch from 27 yards out but chewing up a critical three minutes of clock in the process.
With 3:04 to play, Iowa State only managed a single first down before Jonathan Alexander broke up two passes in three plays, the latter on fourth down, to give K-State the ball with only 1:38 to play. A first-down run by Jordon Brown was all the Wildcats needed to expire the clock and celebrate.
Skylar Thompson did not cover himself with glory despite the win. He was only 5-12 for 57 yards for a miserable 64.9 passer rating, with the lost fumble and interception and no touchdown passes. This was not entirely his fault, as the wind played a role and his receivers flat out dropped several passes, but the sequence at the start of the second half was troubling. Thompson ran for 38 yards (46 before sacks). Thompson’s five completions went to five different receivers, with a 22-yard completion to Chabastin Taylor being the longest.
The Wildcat rushing attack, on the other hand, made its triumphant reappearance tonight. K-State ran for 231 yards, led by 91 yards on 19 carries by Brown and 60 yards on 6 carries by Wright. James Gilbert was a non-factor, only gaining 19 yards on 8 touches.
In addition to his clutch pass breakups, Alexander also had two tackles for loss in a real player of the game effort. Wyatt Hubert also had a pair of TFLs, while Kyle Ball had a sack. The front four was in Purdy’s grill the entire night, and although there were a couple of notable moments when tackling was terrible, overall the tackling showed a significant improvement over much of the season’s performance.
As bad as the night was for Purdy — 15-30 for 185 yards and only one touchdown with an anemic 112.8 passer rating — it was almost much worse. Jones wasn’t the only Wildcat defender to whom Purdy directly threw a pass; DaQuan Patton also nearly had an interception. His receivers, like Thompson’s, had a major case of the drops. Perhaps even worse for Purdy, nearly a third of his passing yardage came on the 60-yard completion to Milton, who had 78 yards on four receptions. Breece Hall, who had 59 yards on 18 carries, was the only Cyclone with positive yardage on the ground.
K-State had 288 yards of offense to Iowa State’s 236. The defense held Iowa State to a ridiculous 2.1 yards per carry, reversing course on a miserable season in which they’d allowed opponents over five yards a carry coming into tonight’s game, and kept the Cyclones under seven yards per pass attempt as well. The Cats won the first down battle 18-10, limited Iowa State to an embarrassing 1-12 on third down while converting half of their own 14 attempts, and held the ball for 34:12.
1) It was a bad night for Thompson, BUT.
Make no mistake: Thompson’s pocket presence tonight was appalling, and he continues to underthrow too often.
But let’s put the pitchforks away. Of Thompson’s seven incompletions, at least five were squarely on the hands of his receivers — literally. If even two of those balls had been caught, the narrative of both the game and Thompson’s performance would be drastically different.
The thought occurred late in the game that perhaps the pressure Thompson felt in previous seasons due to looking over his shoulder hasn’t lessened precisely because there’s really nobody for him to look at now. Knowing that your team is in huge trouble if you fail or get hurt can be just as oppressive as knowing you might get the hook at any moment because of the whims of the coaching staff.
The point here being: let’s see how the bowl game plays out.
2) Speaking of the bowl game...
With the win, and with Oklahoma State‘s loss to Oklahoma tonight, K-State finishes in a tie for third place in the Big 12 with Texas, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State. Because Texas and the Cowboys went 2-1 within the group while K-State and the Cyclones went 1-2, the official final standings have Texas in third, OSU fourth, K-State fifth, and Iowa State sixth.
That probably damages K-State’s chance of finally getting to Florida for a bowl game, as Texas officially finishing in third makes them a more palatable option for some bowls which might be wrinking their noses at a 7-5 team. The rumor mill suggests K-State might actually be on the Alamo Bowl’s radar, but the likely landing spot at this point is either Houston or Memphis.
What’s certain is that if Oklahoma wins the Big 12 Championship Game, K-State cannot go to Arizona for the Cheez-It Bowl, as there won’t be enough Big 12 teams to go around. If Baylor wins it’s possible although unlikely, because Baylor’s probably not going to the playoff and Oklahoma would probably have played their way out of a New Year’s Six at-large spot.
3) We saw the future tonight.
Youngblood was, as always, electric. But he wasn’t the only one. Jacardia Wright had put on a bit of a show in the season’s second game, running for 59 yards against Bowling Green. Nobody had seen him since.
But he got back on the field tonight and did work. Since this was only his second appearance, he can still count this season as a redshirt under the new rules... and he already looks like K-State’s likely starting tailback in 2020.
Get hyped, kids.
4) Seriously, the defense was nails.
Iowa State was forced into six three-and-outs on the night, and only converted one third down opportunity in thirteen tries. Sure, they were 2-3 on fourth down, but let’s not quibble; one of those two conversions was simply a perfect pass thrown to the perfect spot by Purdy, getting the first down by a fingernail.
But the big news here is the six three-and-outs. Coming into the game, Iowa State had only been placed in that position 15 times in 11 games. K-State did it six times in one. The Cyclones never saw the end zone again after halftime, and did not score in the final 21:49 of the contest. That’s huge, too, because K-State’s major failing defensively had been giving up points in the fourth quarter — and they were facing a team which, coming in, was the best fourth quarter scoring offense in FBS.
Indeed, Iowa State was held to 68 yards of total offense in the second half. The Cyclones lost 12 yards on the ground in the third quarter. Instead of wilting, instead of letting the opponent hang around or get back in the game in the second half, K-State said “Nope.”
Gotta love that.
5) K-State might even avoid regressing next year.
The conventional wisdom was that while K-State would struggle to reach a bowl this season, next season was going to be the real nightmare. With the entire offensive line graduating and a patchwork stable of running backs dropping in for one-year stints, with Dalton Schoen graduating, with most of the defensive line and three key members of the back seven on defense also graduating... the idea that Klieman will have to retrench next year while his own recruits get ready has had a lot of traction.
But Thompson will be back. Wright and Joe Ervin appear set to handle the rushing duties, and both have shown talent this season. Thompson will have Wykeen Gill, Malik Knowles, Youngblood and Taylor to throw to. Youngblood will anchor the return game, while Hubert anchors a retooled defensive line. Justin Hughes will return at linebacker alongside Elijah Sullivan. With Walter Neil and AJ Parker missing basically an entire season between them to injury, the younger players have stepped in admirably in the secondary.
This year has shown that next year’s points of concern aren’t as critical as they seemed back in August. Nobody should expect K-State to be a key contender for the Big 12 title next year, but given Klieman’s success in Fargo can we really rule out a run at another eight-win campaign?
A season before which most of us claimed we’d be happy with 6-6 has finally reached its end, and K-State performed better than anyone either claimed to or had a right to expect. A loss in the bowl game would still result in a season which K-State has not surpassed since 2016; a win would result in a season which K-State has not surpassed since Collin Klein almost took the Cats to the national championship in 2012.
That’s a hell of an accomplishment, especially after Bill Snyder sailed off into the sunset.
Now, we wait to see what shakes out next weekend. Now, we wait to see where K-State will be going for the holidays. And now, we celebrate a rivalry win, one which again has the Wildcats in position to tie the all-time series with Iowa State next year.
It’s a beautiful way to end the regular season, isn’t it?