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LIBERTY BOWL FINAL: Navy 20, Kansas State 17

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Navy ran, as expected. But it was the Wildcat offense that came up short.

Not pictured (YET): Lance Robinson, a.k.a. The Flash
Not pictured (YET): Lance Robinson, a.k.a. The Flash
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The opening drive of today’s Liberty Bowl may well have set the tone for the entire day for Kansas State. Skylar Thompson attempted three passes. All three were in the hands of the intended receiver; all three, two of which would have been sure touchdowns, were dropped.

And yet, with five seconds left to play, the game was still tied until Bijan Nichols booted Navy to a 20-17 victory with a 23-yard field goal.

The game almost went to overtime one play earlier. After a trick play in which Malcolm Perry pitched to CJ Williams, who then threw a 41-yard pass to Chance Warren, Perry fumbled at the five-yard line. But Navy recovered, and set up the game-winner.

The Wildcat offense was effectively stuffed for over 51 minutes. Trailing 17-10, and following a missed field goal by Nichols which would have made it a two-score game, Thompson finally led a precision drive to tie the game in the fourth quarter. A pair of completions of 42 and 15 yards to Wykeen Gill pushed the Cats to the Navy 6, and Thompson sneaking in two plays later for the tying score.

Navy had broken a halftime tie with a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, running wild before a 20-yard touchdown by Warren. K-State responded with a clutch fourth-down conversion, but then disaster struck: an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Tyler Mitchell, a bad snap which sailed over Thompson’s head, and and a sack. But the Wildcat defense, despite being repeatedly gashed for yards, managed to keep Navy off the scoreboard until the final field goal.

Nichols had opened the scoring in the first quarter, punching through a 21-yarder after K-State’s failed opening drive. But it was the Wildcats who found the end zone first, scoring on a 66-yard punt return by Phillip Brooks to take a 7-3 lead. Navy responded with a 27-yard pass from Perry to Keone Makekau, and Blake Lynch hit a 39-yarder on the ensuing possession to tie the game at 10.

It was a terrible game offensively for K-State, really. Thompson was 10-14 for 124 yards, which was fine in and of itself, but the low number of attempts should be a clue that something was off. Malik Knowles led the team with five catches for 47 yards; Gill had more yards, with 57, but on two catches. Dalton Schoen ended his time as a Wildcat with two catches for 12 yards.

The problem offensively was that the Cats just couldn’t run the ball. K-State only had 46 yards on 25 carries, led by James Gilbert ‘s 39 yards on eight tries. The Wildcats only had two rushes all day of seven yards or more.

And that was an issue, because Navy ran for 6.1 yards per carry. Perry finished with 213 yards on only 28 carries, setting the NCAA FBS record for single-season rushing yardage by a quarterback in the process. Navy was also effective through the air, going 6-8 for 98 yards and both of their touchdowns via the pass.

As expected, it was a quick game, a bit of an ugly game, and really met most expectations.

Five Things

1) We warned you about the matchup between Navy’s option and K-State’s run defense.

We weren’t really wrong. Navy had 323 yards on the ground. However, there was one unexpected factor. K-State gave up a ton of yards, but were absolutely nails when it counted. Navy only scored once on the ground (on a perfect trick play), and the defense performed markedly better with a shorter field — which is not the expected behavior against an option team in the red zone. Normally, bend-don’t-break is an effective defensive strategy against spread teams, and less so against running teams. K-State flipped that script a bit this afternoon, and deserves some credit for that.

2) Tackling was not the issue you’d have feared.

The Wildcat defense actually did a very, very good job of stopping Navy ball carriers once they got to them. Most of Navy’s big gains were the result of not getting touched at all. This may seem like faint praise, but trust us — it’s been a big step for the team over the course of the last 12 months, and deserves attention.

3) Skylar Thompson was... weird.

Maybe it was having the opening drive go so awry despite his best effort, although it should be noted that one of the three drops on that drive was absolutely his fault. But Thompson was hesitant, did a poor job switching to second and third reads, and when he decided to run he seemed to invariably find the only Navy defenders anywhere close to him and run right at them.

But... after those three drops, Thompson was an absurd 9-10 for 116 yards passing. Which leads us to ask, was the problem with the playcalling? Routes? Or just a lack of confidence in his own ability to hit the receivers? When he did throw, Thompson was money. When he didn’t... oof.

4) But of course K-State scored a touchdown on a return.

All hail Phillip Brooks, who extended K-State’s streak of return touchdowns to what feels like a billion games in a row.

It was important, because it was the only reason K-State was still in the game when the fourth quarter rolled around.

5) Lance Robinson is freakin’ fast, y’all.

The most amazing individual play by a Wildcat today may have been overlooked, because it was a terrible play for K-State fans. It was, ultimately, also huge in its impact on the final five minutes.

Early in the fourth quarter, after Devin Anctil had pinned Navy at their own 11, Perry broke loose for what looked for all the world like an 88-yard touchdown run. Denzel Goolsby was giving it all he had, but couldn’t get the last step he needed to get his hands on Perry and bring him down.

And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, out of the corner of your home television screen, came a streak of white wearing #2. Robinson may as well have been wearing a red uniform with a lightning bolt in a white circle on his chest. He caught Perry at an angle, and actually gained enough real estate that he was able to slow down to make sure he got a good hit, and brought Perry down at the K-State 29. It was a huge save — because the defense then held Navy off, forcing the missed field goal by Nichols.

Hats off, Lance. See you next year.

Wrap

And so, another season comes to a close for Wildcat football. It was a better season than virtually anyone had expected. There were disappointments, to be sure, but only one which was a true moment of palpable angst (West Virginia). But balance that out with this: K-State beat Oklahoma, and went 3-1 against teams which were ranked (in at least one poll) at the time they played. They were supposed to finish ninth in the Big 12; they tied for third.

So as disappointing as parts of this season certainly were for Wildcat fans, it has to be chalked up as a successful campaign.

Next year might not be so rosy. There are major holes to be filled, including basically the entire offensive line. That’s never a real recipe for success, and expectations for 2020 need to be tempered. But for Chris Klieman, and the post-Snyder era at Kansas State, 2019 was a fine start.