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For Want of a Hammer: #14 Oklahoma State 20, Kansas State 18

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Once again, one quarter killed the Cats.

Malik Knowles started well, but disappeared due to injury.
Malik Knowles started well, but disappeared due to injury.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

A Tre Sterling interception of a Will Howard heave with 1:38 to play dashed K-State‘s final opportunity to come back and win in a 20-18 loss to 14th-ranked Oklahoma State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The loss drops the Cats to 4-3 (4-2), and finally releases their hold on first place in the Big 12. The Cowboys improve to 5-1 (4-1), technically taking the conference lead pending tonight’s Iowa State/Baylor result.

The first three drives of the game left Oklahoma State with 19 yards of offense and K-State with one. But when the Cats got the ball after the Cowboys’ second punt, the offense moved. Malik Knowles caught an 18-yard pass, both Deuce Vaughn and Harry Trotter had 10-yard runs, and K-State got into the red zone. But they couldn’t get closer than the 13, and had to settle for a 30-yard kick from Blake Lynch.

The next three drives also belonged to the defenses. Oklahoma State managed 35 yards, K-State zero. But Trotter and Jax Dineen went nuts when the Cats got the ball for their first drive of the second quarter. Trotter carried K-State to a first down to start the drive, and Dineen caught two passes for 29 yards after Will Howard had a 25-yard run off a fake handoff to Vaughn. But again the drive died inside the 15; Lynch kicked a 29-yarder to give K-State a 6-0 lead.

The defense decided they were going to give the offense a chance. Jahron McPherson was blocked in the back by Braydon Johnson, which was funny because the foul didn’t stop McPherson from making the tackle. It cost him a TFL on the stat sheet, though, as Oklahoma State ate 15 yards. Spencer Sanders was sacked on third down by Wyatt Hubert and Bronson Massie, and the Cowboys were forced into their third three-and-out of the afternoon less than 25 minutes into the game.

But K-State went three-and-out too, and Elijah Sullivan hit Dillon Stoner after a fair catch call. It wasn’t his fault thanks to the sun, but it still ruined a shot to pin the Cowboys at the 16. The defense again stood up, although they did let the Cowboys gain some yardage.

Facing 3rd-and-4, Howard faked another handoff to Vaughn and took off. 69 yards later, K-State was in the red zone again. Trotter got the Cats inside the 10 for the first time, and Howard picked up the first down with 46 seconds left in the half. Howard spiked the ball, overthrew to Sammy Wheeler, and then found Phillip Brooks for six. The Cats went for two, but Howard missed Brooks in the corner. Still, K-State took a 12-0 lead into the locker room with the first possession of the second half in pocket.

It was wasted, as the Cowboys forced a three-and-out. Penalties finally reared their head on the ensuing drive, including a late hit by Wayne Jones on Sanders. But a brilliant pass breakup by Kiondre Thomas in the end zone forced a 35-yard field goal by Alex Hale to finally get the Cowboys on the board.

Another three-and-out and a bad punt gave Oklahoma State the ball at midfield, and LD Brown ran for 50 yards on a sweep on the first play, brought down at the one by Sullivan. A false start and a sack of Sanders gave the defense some life, but two plays later Brennan Presley scored on a sweep to bring the Cowboys within two, 12-10.

Once again, the offense did nothing. Once again, the Cowboys marched downfield, but a huge sack by Hubert left Oklahoma State with 2nd-and-16, and after Hubbard only got half of that Hale came on to kick a 33-yarder to give the bad guys the lead. K-State finally got a first down to end the nightmare quarter, in which they lost the time of possession battle 9:07-5:53.

(Correction: Tim Brando said Trotter picked up the first down before FOX went to commercial following the play, but he did not. Brooks picked it up on the first play of the fourth quarter.)

The offense moved a bit, crossing midfield, but a terrible pitch by Howard on the option forced a punt. Stoner fumbled the punt, causing some excitement, but recovered it himself. The Cowboys moved near midfield, but stalled; they also failed to draw the Cats offside pretending to go for it on 4th-and-1 and punted.

Howard immediately connected with Wheeler for 58 yards, and Howard got another eight on yet another play fake, and then...

...Howard fumbled right into the hands of Jason Taylor, who ran 85 yards for the eventual game-winning touchdown.

A huge pass to Brooks got the Cats out of a 3rd-and-16 jam, and then a shot to Brooks in the end zone drew a flag which gave the Cats the ball at the Oklahoma State 6. Keenan Garber (hello!) took it to the 2, and Howard took it on on another fake. But the Cats again failed to convert a 2-point try, and were left faced with a two-point deficit and only 2:08 to play.

The onside kick was knocked out of bounds by Tylan Wallace, making his first appearance of the day for the Cowboys. They went three-and-out, with K-State using all their timeouts to only lose 24 seconds and Justin Hughes making a great ankle tackle on Brown to stop the Pokes on third down. Brooks fair-caught the ball at the 25. Howard had 1:47 to get into field goal range.

It didn’t happen.

Howard did not have a good day passing. He was only 10-21 for 143, with a touchdown and an interception. On the ground, however, he led the team with 125 yards on 14 carries. Trotter had 43 on 9, probably his best game ever as a Wildcat in terms of effectiveness; Vaughn managed 40 on 17 carries, which was a bit ugly. They all outran Hubbard, who was limited to 31 yards on 6 touches, but Brown had 110 yards on 15 carries to lead the Pokes. Sanders didn’t have a good day either, going 14-23 for 108.

The receiving leaders for the Cats were Wheeler, who only caught one pass but it went for 58, and Dineen, who had four catches for 35 yards.

In total, K-State outgained the Cowboys 370-256, on the ground 227-148, and in the air 143-108. Of course, there’s 85 yards missing from all that, because fumble return yardage is not included, and that was the difference in the game.

Of note, Knowles left the game midway for undisclosed reasons, not even returning kickoffs. That smells like an injury.

Our players of the game:

We’re going to give Jax Dineen the nod on offense, largely because he finally contributed in a big way. If the big load knew where the sideline was, he’d have had a lot more yardage. Honorable mention here to frequent Benevolent Despot target of ire Harry Trotter, who really had a hell of a game, and to Howard just for being a man and getting K-State back in position to win the game in the first place.

Defensively, for the first time in awhile this goes to Wyatt Hubert. Hubert was individually responsible for most of the frustration Sanders will be feeling as he goes over this game in his head. Wyatt may, finally, be the beneficiary of opposing teams realizing they can’t ignore Massie, Drew Wiley, or Khalid Duke. (Indeed, Wiley and Duke were comparatively silent today because they were being blocked instead of Hubert being doubleteamed.)

What did we learn?

1) Deuce has been solved.

I’m not saying he won’t be an effective back during his time here. But even with Howard making the Cowboys pay for keying on Vaughn, they kept doing it — because they know, and so does everyone else. Vaughn will never surprise anyone again, so the staff is going to figure out a way for him to get his ground yards, which means figuring out a way to get the defense to pay attention to someone else.

2) The defense didn’t give this game away; they saved it.

Yes, the defense sagged in the third quarter. They were also on the field for two-thirds of it. The offense put them in that position. And yet... even though they gave up a bunch of yards in that quarter, they kept the Cowboys from scoring 21, holding them instead to 13. That was huge.

The defense surrendered 147 yards that quarter, 117 of it on the ground. The rest of the game? 109, 31 on the ground.

If you complain about the defense, turn in your football card.

3) Don’t chase points.

K-State went for two twice. They missed twice. They lost by two.

Is there anything else to be said here?

4) The turnover margin needs to come back to the good guys.

K-State was -2 today. The Howard fumble was unfortunate, but it’s not like he wasn’t protecting the ball. It got punched out from behind, and that’s a very, very difficult situation to prevent for a ball-carrier. But the other part of the problem... Will Howard has to stop overthrowing the ball. That simple. He was high all day, which led to incompletions which killed drives and led to the interception which iced the game.

Again, not knocking Will. Freshman, etc. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to fix the problem, right?

5) K-State can still reach the Big 12 CCG even with this loss.

If K-State wins out, they’d be in great shape against everyone else if Oklahoma State also wins out. If the Cowboys fall back into the tiebreaker situation (or worse), the Cats would be no worse than second place in any 2-way tie for first (obviously), and almost any three-way tie because the fourth-place team would come into play there and K-State will have beaten the fourth-place team no matter who it is. A four-way tie gets tricky, but they’d still be in good shape because they’ll have beaten the fifth-place team no matter who it is.

But that requires K-State to win out. After what we saw today, that is absolutely within the bounds of sanity even without any appreciable improvement. But it’s definitely not probable.