The Kansas State defense was supposed to be the question mark. After all, look what happened to them at the end of 2020, said the pundits.
Not so much.
A very solid defensive performance by the entire unit salvaged an up-and-down effort by the offense as K-State (1-0) wiped out the Stanford Cardinal (0-1) 24-7 in the Allstate Kickoff Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.
K-State blew a sterling opportunity on their first drive. After forcing Stanford to punt on the game’s opening possession, the Cats moved downfield at will, gaining over fifteen yards on three of their first four plays and churning down to the Cardinal 23 in short order. But Skylar Thompson took a shot deep to Phillip Brooks, and Kyu Blu Kelly made an impressive interception in the end zone to stifle the threat.
After a three-and-out, the Wildcats made up for it. Thompson found Brooks wide open on the first play, leading to a 56-yard catch-and-run which took K-State to the Stanford six. Thompson ran it in himself on the next play, punctuating it by pancaking Kelly at the goal line.
On the following drive, Stanford got some traction and moved into Wildcat territory. But the defense stiffened, and David Shaw opted to punt from the K-State 43. The Cats immediately got on the move again, with Malik Knowles gaining 30 yards on a jet sweep, but Thompson was sacked on the next play and the drive stalled. Stanford went three-and-out again, and three plays later Deuce Vaughn broke free for a career-long 59 yard scamper to the end zone.
The Cardinal started moving the ball again, but Russ Yeast put an end to their drive with his first interception as a Wildcat. A chop block called on Vaughn and Noah Johnson put K-State in a 1st-and-25 hole as timme wound down in the half, and Chris Klieman opted to just have Thompson run out the clock since K-State was set to receive the second-half kickoff.
In a disturbing turn of events for those familiar with K-State’s recent history, that opening possession was the first three-and-out of the game for the Cats. Stanford then made their deepest penetration into Wildcat territory thus far, reaching the K-State 24. But two sacks in three plays by Eli Huggins and Khalid Duke forced the Cardinal out of field goal range and they had to punt again.
It being the third quarter, of course, K-State couldn’t get anything going either and Stanford got their best starting field position of the day as a reward. They squandered it with a three-and-out, and the third quarter ended — surprisingly, without disaster.
Thompson started hitting passes. A 10-yarder to Knowles, followed a few plays later by a 22-yard strike to Daniel Imatorbhebhe, put K-State on the verge of the red zone. They never did get to the 20, but Taiten Winkel hit a 40-yard field goal to give the Cats a 17-0 lead.
Five plays later, TJ Smith jammed the dagger into Stanford’s heart with an interception and a 39-yard return to the Cardinal 20. Vaughn ran for seven, then Thompson rolled in from 13 yards out to make it 24-0.
Unfortunately, during the ensuing Stanford drive K-State lost the services of Daniel Green for the first half of next week’s game as he was ejected for targeting. That put Stanford at the 25, and the shutout in peril. On 4th-and-1 at the Wildcat 16, Stanford went for it and converted instead of kicking a field goal; on the next play, with a mere 3:16 to go, Tanner McKee hit Bryce Tremayne with a 14-yard touchdown pass. The Cats were able to run out the clock from that point, not without some excitement; Vaughn broke free for a 42 yard run to the Cardinal 5, but a holding call brought the ball back to the Wildcat 43.
Thompson didn’t have a great day through the air, going 9-14 for 144 yards and an interception, but he did rush for two scores on 10-33. Brooks carried much of the aerial load, catching three balls for 81 yards; Imatorbhebhe, Knowles, and Vaughn each had two catches. Vaughn broke the 100-yard mark on the ground with 124 on 13 touches, a 9.5 yard per carry clip. Knowles added 35 yards on two carries, while Jacardia Wright and Joe Ervin combined for eight yards on six carries.
Stanford’s quarterback tandem was actually effective, as McKee and Jack West combined go to 23-30 for 194 yards and a touchdown; West threw both picks. The only Stanford player who racked up more than 30 yards of offense was Tremayne, with 62 yards on five catches.
K-State outgained the Cardinal 344-233, and 200-39 on the ground.
1) Skylar Thompson looked just like Skylar Thompson
Now, before getting too bent out of shape, understand: it’s the first game. The good and bad things we’re already familiar with about Thompson were both in evidence this afternoon, however. When he decides to run, he gets the yards he needs. When he throws immediately, things usually work.
But when his options are closed and he has no obvious running lane to which he can escape, he still looks confused. He was sacked three times; two of them were his own fault, as he had all day to throw but neither got rid of the ball nor ran it out. (The third was a badly blown play on a fake handoff which looked like the offensive line was expecting the run.)
He’s got to be better than this. Let’s hope an afternoon of real action and a week of practice get him on track.
2) The run defense was absolutely incredible.
Again: Stanford only had 39 yards rushing. On 22 attempts. Ignoring sacks, it was 46 yards on 15 carries, which is still only three yards a try; only two carries all day went for more than six yards. All afternoon, Stanford ball carriers were immediately and forcefully halted by guys in purple jerseys. There were no missed tackles on running plays — not one.
3) The secondary was #ActuallyGood, too.
Stanford did have four completions of 15 or more yards, which totaled 91 of the Cardinal’s 194 yards.
But nobody broke free on the Wildcat secondary. We don’t have the yards after catch numbers, but they have to be miniscule — because the secondary was tackling receivers almost immediately after the catch. That’s another huge change from the K-State we’ve known for several years.
4) The defensive line was... effective.
K-State did have four sacks, so it’s not as though they weren’t applying any pressure. But it took until the end of the third quarter to record the second of those four sacks, and that more than anything led to the 102 first-half passing yards Stanford earned. They only had 92 in the second half, and 55 of that was on the final drive with the game all but decided.
And on one play in the second quarter, Timmy Horne began a legend, obliterating three Cardinal linemen and allowing Cody Fletcher to post K-State’s first sack of the day.
5) We have to give the receivers an incomplete.
Nobody really stood out, although Imatorbhebhe made a tremendous diving catch on one ball. Thompson’s difficulties were certainly compounded by receivers not getting open, and we’d noted that the depth just isn’t really there beyond Knowles, Brooks, and the not-receivers like Imatorbhebhe and Vaughn.
Players of the game
On offense, it’s clearly Vaughn, who’s picked up right where he left off. If not for a holding penalty, he’d have had a buck fifty. On defense, we’re going with Russ Yeast among a raft of viable candidates. Yeast actually intercepted two passes on the day, but the second was wiped out by an offsides call. Green had 8 tackles, Fletcher had eight and a sack, Julius Brents had 5, TJ Smith had an interception and just played great football all day, Reggie Stubblefield had one of the most beautiful pass breakups you’ll ever see, and of course Timmy Horne was a beast. In fact, during the entire game only once did anyone in our staff slack call out a defensive player for a bad play (Green’s targeting penalty notwithstanding), and that was a play on which Justin Gardner actually got beaten.
Look, if that’s all you get in an entire game, it’s a good game.
Next week, the Cats get an actual home game against an FCS team, so hopefully some of the offensive kinks get worked out. For now, K-State can stand tall, having dominated their non-conference Power 5 opponent for the second time in three years.