Kansas State’s defense was once again impenetrable on the ground, and they weren’t too bad when Nevada tried to throw the ball either as the Wildcats ran their way to a 38-17 win over the Wolf Pack this afternoon at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
K-State (3-0) got things underway with a bang. After Will Howard got seven yards on the ground, he throw a strike to Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a 68-yard touchdown on the game’s second play. According to Chris Klieman, that was a pre-snap read on Howard’s part.
The game ground to a slog quickly after that, with the teams trading punts on the next three possessions. Then the Cats had Nevada (2-1) facing 3rd-and-5 on their own 31, and for the first time all game Carson Strong found himself alone in the pocket. The result was a 55-yard bomb to Romeo Doubs, despite Russ Yeast trying to commit pass interference. Doubs was brought down at the Wildcat 2, and the defense actually forced a fourth down before Devonte Lee scored off a direct snap to tie the game.
Klieman then threw a planned curveball, inserting third-string quarterback Jaren Lewis into the game. He threw on the first two plays, completing the first, but with one exception K-State simply ran the ball down Nevada’s throats for the rest of the drive. The drive ended with Joe Ervin racing for a 22-yard score to put K-State back on top 14-7.
The defense largely bottled Nevada up on the ensuing drive until Strong attempted to go deep. Tee Denson read it perfectly, however, and got his first career interception. He ran it back into Nevada territory, but an unsportsmanlike conduct call against five Wildcats for excessive celebration pushed K-State back across midfield. The Wildcats again kept mostly to the ground, but ended up settling for a 37-yard Taiten Winkel field goal and a 17-7 lead. The defense held, and the half ended.
Nevada moved the ball well on the first drive of the second half, aided by another completion to Doubs for 23 yards — the second time Strong was afforded time to throw all day — and a trick play which went for a 44-yard gain. But Strong was hit while trying to throw the ball out of bounds two plays later, and Jay Norvell went insane, throwing his headset. The result was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Nevada which pushed them back too far to get another first down, and Brandon Talton kicked a 46-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
K-State, with Howard back in the game, went three-and-out and Ty Zentner shanked his punt. Nevada took advantage of the short field and dinked their way downfield, culminating in a 14-yard touchdown pass from Strong to Elijah Cooks and the game was again tied.
Five plays of more than ten yards each highlighted K-State’s response, including the resumption of a thing called “passing the football”. The Cats only faced a long second down once the entire drive, and Vaughn finished off the drive with an 11-yard run to put K-State back on top 24-17.
Nevada poked their way into Wildcat territory, but faced 4th-and-4 on the K-State 41. Strong had no receivers open and tried to leg it out, but Nate Matlack stopped him a half-yard shy of the sticks to force a turnover on downs.
Short passes rejoined the K-State arsenal on the ensuing drive, as Howard was 3-3 for 25 yards. But it was the legs that did the important work, including Howard’s own as he capped the drive with a two-yard score with 6:12 to play. That gave K-State a 31-17 lead and a great deal of air to breathe.
A dropped pass by Turner Cole on 3rd-and-4 forced Nevada to go for it, but the pass was tipped at the line by Robert Hentz and the Wolf Pack again turned the ball over on downs. The Cats ground down the clock, with Will Howard scoring the final Wildcat points on a one-yard run with 1:12 to play. Nevada tried to get a consolation score, but Matlack sacked him on the game’s final play.
Howard was 7-10 for 123 yards, a touchdown passing, and — most importantly — no interceptions. He added another 56 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Lewis was 2-3 for 6 yards, no carries. Aside from Imatorbhebhe’s touchdown catch, Phillip Brooks handled most of the receiving load, hauling in five passes for 28 yards. Three other receivers combined for three catches, 33 yards. On the ground, Vaughn had his fifth consecutive 100-yard day, posting 127 on 23 carries with a score. Ervin added 82 yards on 11 attempts with a touchdown.
The Wildcats were outgained through the air 306-129. But when you outgain your opponent 269-25 on the ground, you’ll take that. Nevada’s 25 rushing yards came on 23 attempts, too. Woof, pack.
Interesting stat: K-State had no return yardage on punts or kickoffs.
1) Carson Strong is a legitimate NFL prospect
We don’t normally devote one of our Five Things to the opponent, but this is an exception because it’s important to our Second Thing. Strong was not particularly effective under pressure, but the sort of pressure he was actually under in this game is decidedly not common in the NFL. Given time in the pocket, Strong throws bullets on target.
But he still put up a day. Strong was 27-40 for 262 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He’ll be alright.
2) The Wildcat front six kept Strong in check
Three sacks, two other tackles for loss, and five quarterback hurries. That’s what K-State did to Strong, and while it didn’t silence him entirely it certainly led to several key drive endings.
But it wasn’t just the containment of Nevada’s star that is telling here. Nevada only gained 25 yards on the ground, and you’re going to win a lot of football games if the other team can’t run the ball. K-State has allowed 164 yards on the ground.
In three games.
There was bad news, as Khalid Duke had to be helped off the field and could not put weight on his left leg. But as noted in the recap above, Nate Matlack more than adequately sufficed to plug the gap.
3) The offensive line was absolutely dominant
Nevada recorded three tackles for loss the entire day, and two of them were basically self-inflicted wounds on K-State’s part. They hurried Lewis exactly once and Howard not at all. They recored no sacks.
Make no mistake, that wasn’t because Nevada’s front seven is awful. The offensive line played out of their minds this afternoon, and it was a huge reason why the Wildcats put up the rushing numbers they did. It looked like the offensive line might also have suffered a loss late in the game when Josh Rivas was helped off the field and into the tunnel, but he returned for the game’s final offensive drive.
4) Jaren Lewis was... acceptable
Lewis wasn’t asked to do much other than hand the ball off. But he was 2-3 passing, albeit all on short attempts and screens, and the incompletion was under pressure, thrown just a bit too high. The important thing is that he got game experience in a non-blowout situation and didn’t suffer any blows to his confidence.
This is important, because if anything happens to Howard, Lewis has to be the man.
5) Speaking of Howard, he was quite good today
Will Howard posted a passer rating of 206.3 this afternoon. Granted, starting off with a 68-yard touchdown pass will boost your numbers. But outside of that he was 6-9 for 55 yards, which isn’t Dan Marino but it also wasn’t... well, Will Howard last week.
More importantly, two of his incompletions were drops of completely catchable balls which he did not overthrow. That’s progress.
Players of the Game
On offense, this week’s game ball goes to the offensive line. All of them. It was a dominating performance; running backs don’t repeatedly gain 12 yards running up the middle unless someone’s doing some work. Joe Ervin, however, almost nabbed the honor as he had a career day this afternoon.
On defense, it was a tough call. Daniel Green had nine tackles and a sack. Nate Matlack had the game-ending sack and a key fourth-down stop which in all reality was the game-winning play. But we’re going with Tee Denson, whose interception shut down a Nevada threat and preserved the Wildcat lead in the second quarter, and who also absolutely laid out Marquess Stovall after a catch on the drive which ended with Matlack’s fourth-down stop. It was Denson’s only tackle of the game, but it prevented a first down and forced Strong to press afterward in a key moment.
Next weekend. Stillwater. Oklahoma State. Big 12 commences.