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Kansas State survives FCS #8 Southern Illinois 31-23

A rout turned into a nightmare when Skylar Thompson went down.

Is this the end?
Is this the end?
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

With Southern Illinois at the K-State 21 with 19 seconds left, the game was very much on the line.

Felix Anudike-Uzomah was the deciding factor. His sack of Nic Baker, his third of the game, put an end to any hopes of a Saluki victory as Kansas State escaped with a 31-23 win at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. That the game was even in doubt after the Wildcats jumped out to a 21-0 lead was the consequence of disaster: Skylar Thompson has once again been sidelined with an injury, and the wheels fell off almost immediately after that happened.

Obviously, then, things started out great for the Cats. Deuce Vaughn gained ten on the first snap, then Skylar Thompson hit Malik Knowles for a 43-yard strike. Joe Ervin ran for nine to get into the red zone, and three rushes later Vaughn found paydirt for a 7-0 lead.

On the Southern Illinois snap, a Baker pass was deflected; Ryan Henington made an absolutely beautiful volleyball dig to keep the ball from hitting the ground and it ended up in the hands of Jaylen Pickle. But Thompson was himself intercepted on the next play while trying to throw deep. The defense held again, forcing a three-and-out.

Thompson and Knowles connected again for 50 yards four plays later, and then disaster struck. Thompson handed off to Vaughn, who picked up eight yards. Trailing behind Vaughn, Thompson suddenly pulled up lame and went down, untouched. There are as yet no details on the nature of Thompson’s injury; it was obviously his leg, but whether it was an achilles, an ACL, or something else is undetermined.

Will Howard came in, and scored three plays later on a quarterback sneak to give K-State a 14-0 lead. The defense immediately wilted, perhaps deflated by Thompson’s injury. The Salukis marched downfield, and while the defense did stiffen in the red zone the result was still points for the visitors as Nico Gualdoni hit a 32-yarder.

After completing a 21-yard pass to Weber, Howard did not throw again on the following drive. The Cats piled up 61 yards on the ground, culminating with a 13-yard run by Vaughn followed by a one-yard push through three offensive linemen for a touchdown. Southern Illinois marched down again, scoring on a four-yard run by Javon Williams before failing a two-point attempt.

Then, for the first time in his K-State career, Vaughn lost a fumble. The ball was hacked out of his hand at the 25, and two plays later Williams scored again to make it 21-16. Three plays later, Howard was intercepted by PJ Jules, who ran it back 41 yards for a pick-six and suddenly the Salukis had a 23-21 lead.

K-State muddled around midfield for awhile on the next drive before Noah Johnson was badly beaten at the line, resulting in Howard getting blown up and fumbling. Khalid Duke ended the threat with a sack of Baker on the final play of the half, but K-State was still left heading to the locker room with a two-point deficit at home to an FCS team and more questions than answers.

Fortunately for K-State, the third quarter wasn’t the usual disaster. The defense held the Salukis to only 27 yards for the quarter and only one first down, and the offense largely kept the ball on the ground. The only score was a 34-yard Taiten Winkel field goal which gave the lead back to K-State.

The defense wasn’t great on the first Saluki possession of the fourth quarter... until it was. Jahron McPherson was called for a facemask, giving Southern Illinois a first down at the Wildcat 35. McPherson then sacked Baker, but a 16-yard completion to Avante Cox set up third-and-one at the K-State 26. Bronson Massie laid the boom on Romeir Elliott for a four-yard loss, forcing a 47-yard attempt by Gualdoni into a strong wind. It sailed wide left, and K-State hung onto the lead.

Vaughn essentially ran for 26 yards on the next drive, but only 18 of it counted thanks to a completely avoidable procedure penalty for five men in the backfield. That penalty wiped out an eight-yard run on 2nd-and-10; Vaughn gained eight on the next play, but that left K-State with 3rd-and-7 instead of a first down. Howard avoided a sack, throwing the ball away, and K-State punted.

Baker was sacked by Aundike-Uzomah and fumbled. Daniel Green recovered at the Saluki ten yard line, but the Cats could not get into the end zone. Winkel missed a 24-yarder, and the score remained 24-23.

But the defense forced a three-and-out, and Howard had a big completion to Phillip Brooks on 3rd-and-10, Ervin and Vaughn ran their butts off, and it all ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Deuce to give K-State a 31-23 lead and put the end result in the hands of the defense.

Thompson, before leaving, was 3-4 for 96 yards and an interception, despite which he still had a passer rating in the 200s. Howard went 8-17 for 76 yards and a pick. Notably, K-State has yet to throw a touchdown pass this year. For the Salukis, Baker was 16-27 for 176 with a pick and no scores.

Vaughn had 120 yards on 26 carries with three touchdowns. The rest of the backfield got in on the fun too, though. Ervin had 47 yards on eight touches and Jacardia Wright carried three times for 24. Earlier in the game, the load was much more evenly spread; with the game in doubt, the staff relied more on Vaughn.

Five receivers not named Malik Knowles combined for seven catches and 60 yards; Knowles had four for 112. In total, K-State outgained the Salukis 380-176, and 208-100 on the ground. Southern Illinois only managed 2.5 yards per carry.

Five Things

1) Will Howard has one problem he HAS to fix or the season’s doomed.

Howard’s problem last year is the same as this year: consistently overthrowing his receivers. Nearly every ball the threw today was high. That worked to his advantage on one play... because it saved an interception. The maddening thing is that he overthrows Vaughn by exactly as much as he overthrows Knowles, so there’s clearly something mechanical here.

Unfortunately, it’s not often you see a college quarterback make a mechanical adjustment mid-season, backup or not. So we may be in for a long season if Thompson doesn’t return.

2) On the other hand, Howard has better presence in the pocket.

Howard was only sacked once, and that was the result of a completely blown block. When Howard threw the ball away just before the punt which preceded the Baker fumble, I commented on Twitter that Thompson would have been sacked there and nobody disagreed with me.

3) Turnovers are bad.

Who knew? Without turnovers, K-State would have won this game 31-9, so it wasn’t the fundamental disaster it may have felt like.

K-State committed four of them, their most in years. They got two of them back, but neither resulted in points; the first was the Pickle interception which was immediately followed by Thompson throwing one himself, and the second was the fumble which resulted in Winkel’s missed field goal.

4) The defense really needs Daniel Green, it seems.

Green missed the first half as a result of his targeting penalty last week against Stanford. The defense was terrible in the second quarter, turnovers notwithstanding.

The second half was a different story. They only allowed the Salukis 105 yards in the second half, and 55 of that was on the final drive. A drive which, of course, ended with the defense telling Southern Illinois “Haha, just kidding.”

5) The future is uncertain.

It’s possible this season ended when Thompson went down. It’s also possible that, given the first-team reps, Howard will get back to the form we saw early last year. But it’s also troubling that Howard looked nothing like the Will Howard who stepped in last year when Thompson was hurt against Texas Tech. Nothing at all.

Players of the Game

It’s tempting to give the offensive award this week to Thompson, considering K-State scored 21 points on drives he largely led and only 10 the rest of the game. Thompson is maligned by many — both unfairly and, with qualifications, fairly — but it’s obvious that the offense was clicking before he was hurt and wasn’t after.

It’s also always an easy answer to say Deuce Vaughn, and nobody would really argue if we did. But today we’re going with Malik Knowles, who had a big day catching the ball for the first time in awhile. He was almost singlehandedly responsible for K-State building that 21-0 lead — and it cannot be stressed enough that without that lead today would have been an abject disaster.

On defense, we were going to hand the award to Daniel Green just for coming back from his suspension at halftime. But one play tipped the scale, and that was the last relevant play of the game. Felix Anudike-Uzomah had three sacks on the evening, including the one that iced the win. He wasn’t alone; the three-man front was actually excellent all night, even in the horrible second quarter.

This team is going to have to get it together this week, because next Saturday a feisty Nevada team is coming to town and a lackluster performance isn’t going to get the job done.