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ESCAPE: (21) Kansas State comes back to survive (25) Kansas, 31-27

Kansas is finally going to win this game, but tonight they shot themselves in the foot.

Nov 18, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Kansas State Wildcats wide receiver Keagan Johnson (10) scores a touchdown during the first half against the Kansas State Wildcats at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Keagan Johnson scores more than his old team, it feels like.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The second meeting between Kansas State and Kansas in which both teams were ranked, and the first since 1995, was a horrible display of football which should be forgotten as soon as is humanly possible. But thanks to K-State being better able to survive its mistakes, the Wildcats escaped Lawrence with a 31-27 win at Memorial Stadium.

It started great for the Cats, however.

Will Howard opened the game with a 46-yard pass to Jayce Brown, and after DJ Giddens ran for another 18 on the second play, Howard found Ben Sinnott for an 11-yard touchdown pass to put the Cats up with only a minute-ten off the clock.

The defense forced a 3-and-out, but the K-State (8-3, 6-2 Big 12) offense couldn’t capitalize; on third down, Howard aired one out to Phillip Brooks, whose jersey shoulder was being stretched out by Kobe Bryant for at least 15 yards without drawing a flag.

Kansas (7-4, 4-4 Big 12) drove, shuffling running backs and making use of the wildcat, and eventually Devin Neal broke free for a 36-yard touchdown run on the 12th play of the drive. That run put him over 1000 yards on the season, and tied the game at 7.

Kansas stopped the Cats again, and then got a huge break. Cole Ballard fumbled forward, and instead of covering the fumble Will Lee tried to scoop it. The ball shot downfield and was recovered by the Jayhawks, resulting in a gain of 27. Then Ballard hit Luke Grimm for 33 yards, down to the 3, and after a loss of six on a blown running play, Neal scored again from nine yards out. But instead of it being 14-7 Kansas, Nate Matlack blocked the extra point and Keenan Garber gathered it up and ran it all the way back for two, making it 13-9 instead.

Two big penalties, including one on 4th-and-3 at the 23, helped the Cats get into the red zone, and Howard found Keagan Johnson for an 11-yard score to regain the lead at 16-13.

KU again drove, chewing the clock like Bubble Yum, and had 1st-and-goal from the 5 after a rare pass interference call against a rarely-beaten Garber. and on third down Ballard, while being drilled by Austin Romaine, somehow found Lawrence Arnold in the end zone. Despite Romaine clearly trying to hold Ballard up as they went down, he was called for roughing the passer for “driving the quarterback into the ground”, but it was basically an irrelevant penalty with only 26 seconds left in the half, which ended at 20-16 Kansas.

The Jayhawks got the ball to start the second half, and after the kickoff went out of bounds, Ballard completed a 59-yard pass to Mason Fairchild. Two plays later, Neal scored again from two yards out. The Cats went 3-and-out when a pass by Howard went incomplete on third down; he was thrown to the ground after throwing the ball with no flag. But the Jayhawks went 3-and-out as well after Beau Palmer tipped a pass away, keeping it a two-score game.

Howard then threw a pass which would have been a pick-six if Rich Miller could catch a pass. Treshaun Ward erased that memory quickly with a 52-yard run. A third-down catch by Sinnott kept the drive alive, and pushed Sinnott over 1000 yards receiving for his career. A few plays later, Giddens scored from a yard out to get the Cats back within a score; K-State went for two, and Howard ran it in to make it 27-24.

A bad kickoff and a 34-yard return gave Kansas the ball at their own 40. After dropping Neal for a loss and stopping second down short, the secondary forced Ballard into a bad pass, which bounced into the air and was snagged by Kobe Savage. But Howard threw an interception himself four plays later.

Kansas got three quick first downs, but then got shut down. A punt which would have pinned K-State deep got flagged for kick catch interference, giving the Cats the ball at the 27, but Giddens then took a rare loss to create a 2nd-and-16, followed by a pointless deep ball into double coverage which was overthrown. And then Howard was sacked.

Kansas fumbled the punt, and K-State recovered at midfield.

Again, Giddens was dropped for a loss on first down. On third down, Howard found Brown for 29 yards, and even the TV crew noticed the horsecollar tackle which wasn’t called. The play was reviewed — not for the penalty, because you can’t do that, but for the spot — and the play stood. Giddens bulled to the 15, then Howard faked a jet sweep to Brooks, but under serious heat had to throw, and went to Brooks on a nearly no-look pass to salvage a yard. Then Howard ran it in from 11 to put the Wildcats back on top, 31-27.

The Jayhawks marched downfield, quickly getting to the red zone, but the defense did what it usually does in the red zone. Facing 4th-and-5 at the 11, Ballard was pressured and threw... and Marques Sigle picked the ball off in the end zone to kill the drive with 5:33 to go.

The Cats then, finally, just fed Giddens. With 2:23 to go, Kansas called timeout following the one-yard gain that put Giddens right at 100 for the fourth time this season, and another two yards later. On 3rd-and-7, Howard finally connected with Phillip Brooks for the first time all night for a first down, but Lance Leipold called for a review.

The catch stood, and with a first down and 2:11 to go, KU called its last timeout. On first down, Howard ran around in the backfield and lost 16 yards on purpose to burn time, which allowed K-State to kill the clock and escape with their fifteenth-straight win over their rivals.

Howard was only 13-24 for 165 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and had 18 yards and a score with his legs. Giddens had 102 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown, while Ward added 63 on 7. Offensively this was Jayce Brown’s true coming-out party, perhaps; the freshman had 96 yards on four catches. Sinnott also had four catches for 39 yards and a score, while Johnson and Giddens each caught two passes and Brooks had his lone catch to basically seal the game.

K-State only had 331 yards of offense, but really had 356 as 25 yards were taken off the board on the final drive. 165 of that was through the air, obviously, while 166 was on the ground; again, that would have been 191 if not for the clock kill.

Kansas racked up 396 yards, 234 on the ground. They were penalized 5 times for 59 yards, while K-State was only hit twice for 30. K-State won the turnover battle 3-1, while Kansas held time of possession at 33:20-26:40.


1) Don’t blame the defense.

Lance Leipold trotted out a Division III option offense, which no Power 5 defensive coordinator is really going to prepare for — especially when the opponent hasn’t been showing it all season. So they had a lot of success in the first half. Klanderman was able to make adjustments, and mostly got things under control.

The linebacker situation did not help; Daniel Green and Jake Clifton would’ve been pretty helpful tonight. Ballard also proved to be extremely competent, and if Jalon Daniels hadn’t announced he’ll be back next year I’d tab him as the potential starter in 2024.

Frankly, it’s probably a good thing for Kansas that Jason Bean was out tonight, because if he had played, the defense would have been prepared for what Kansas was doing.

2) Collin Klein biffed it again.

We love Will Howard, alright? We want him to get paid. But tonight’s playcalling appears for all the world to have been intended to try and help that happen rather than to, you know, win the football game.

Midway through the third quarter, K-State was averaging 8.9 yards a carry, yet Howard had thrown more passes than the Wildcats had rushing attempts.

Inexplicable and unacceptable. Balance is fine, but when the other team can’t stop you from doing something, you do it.

3) Howard wasn’t good tonight anyway.

See the stats above. They’re self-explanatory. But big ups to Will for his one big run, which put the Cats ahead for good.

4) This was a bad game for Austin Moore.

Anyone who regularly reads our recaps knows: we love Austin Moore. He is the epitome of a Kansas State Wildcat. He is a smart player, he has saved this team time and again when other people are hurt or underperforming. He’ll go down as one of those secondary legends.

He wasn’t good tonight. He missed a ton of tackles, which we’ve just never seen before. Maybe the state of the linebacking corps plays a part here. He’ll be alright, but we have to point this out as part of the explanation for why K-State’s run defense was so atrocious tonight.

5) Kansas is still Kansas, no matter what.

Despite all of that, K-State still won. Think about that.

Maybe Leipold can finally get his team over this hump, assuming he doesn’t dash off to East Lansing or something. But despite actually outplaying K-State for most of this game, the Jayhawks — as always — made enough mistakes to lose the Sunflower Showdown.


On offense, the nod goes to DJ Giddens. His yards per carry by the end of the game was not a stellar number; he only managed 4.9 a touch. But he got over 100 yards again because until K-State went into “let’s end this” mode, he’d been averaging about nine a pop. Defensively, we’re going to honor someone we’ve given a lot of grief this season; Marques Sigle’s interception ended the final Kansas threat, and that’s good, we hear.