Kansas State racked up 588 yards of total offense while limiting Southeast Missouri State to only six rushing yards as they rolled to a 45-0 victory in the 2023 season opener at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Will Howard became only the sixth player in Big 12 history to score touchdowns rushing, passing, and receiving, three other players racked up over 100 yards rushing or receiving, and K-State fans got to witness the future when Avery Johnson made his hotly anticipated debut in purple.
K-State capitalized early after shutting the Redhawks down on their first possession. Although the first offensive play for the Wildcats was an amateurish clownshow which thankfully didn’t result in a turnover, the rest of the drive was a series of successful experiments involving most of the expected feature players. Dinking their way to the SEMO 33, Will Howard finally loaded the cannon and found Jadon Johnson to open the scoring.
On their second drive, SEMO finally got some traction, but a huge personal foul penalty stuck them with 3rd-and-18 back in their own territory. Two plays later, they were a yard short of the sticks and turned it over on downs. But Howard returned the favor, getting hit as he threw; Antonio Taylor snagged the pick and returned it to the Wildcat 46.
The defense again forced a three-and-out, the offense taking over at their own 16. On the second play, Howard found Ben Sinnott for 40 yards; the quarter ended at the Redhawk 24. Four plays later, Treshaun Ward picked up 15 and came up a hair short. SEMO put up a nice goal line stand, as Ward failed to get in on first down, and Howard failed on second although that required a review to uphold the call. Having had quite enough of that, Howard faked a handoff to DJ Giddens on third down and took it in himself around the end to take a 14-0 lead.
The Redhawks got one good play on the next drive, but it still ended before midfield when Nate Matlack — you know, the defensive end Nate Matlack — nearly got an interception on third down. Howard connected with Sinnott, Phillip Brooks, and Sinnott again to get back into SEMO real estate. Two plays later, Howard dropped a 37-yard dime on RJ Garcia for another score, after which the defense recorded their third three-and-out.
The Cats started at their own 40; in short order, Howard found Sinnott again. Sinnott fumbled as he was being tackled, but the ball bounced right to Garcia, who took it down to the SEMO 3; Ward toted it in on the next play and the rout was officially on.
Khalid Duke notched K-State’s third sack of the night to help ruin the next Redhawk drive; that set up 2nd-and-23, which was followed by another tackle for loss combined holding penalty which K-State declined. SEMO ran for -1 on third, punted, and Giddens promptly ran for 43 yards down the sideline. He stepped out a few yards earlier, but even on review the play stood. A circus toe-tapper catch by Garcia took the Cats to the brink of the red zone, but he banged up his shoulder. Two plays later, Ward THREW a touchdown pass TO Howard to give the Cats a 35-0 lead at halftime.
To open the third quarter, K-State had to settle for a 51-yard field goal from Chris Tennant, whose 2022 had been a beleaguered disaster. The defense played soft, but still forced a punt; Howard immediately hit Garcia, back in the game after his shoulder stinger, for 44 yards. But at midfield, SEMO forced fourth down and the Cats punted for the first time all night. Jack Blumer picked up where Ty Zentner left off, dropping the punt at the eight-yard line.
SEMO got some movement, but near midfield Brendan Mott forced a fumble, which was recovered by Will Lee, but it was overturned on review leaving the Redhawks facing 4th-and-4. They punted, and the second-team offense, led by true freshman Avery Johnson, took the field.
And, wow. After a couple of safe handoffs to Ward, Johnson got 20 yards with his legs and 40 with his arm in the next four plays to take the game into the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Johnson got his first career touchdown on a seven-yard run, extending the lead to 45-0.
A fourth-down sack by Nate Matlack — K-State’s fourth of the night — ended the next Redhawk intrusion, and the remainder of the game passed without incident as SEMO also went to their backups.
Howard was 18 of 26 for 297 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, plus his rushing and receiving touchdowns; he only carried the ball three times for five yards. That pick caused his passer rating of 182.9 to be lower than Johnson’s, who was 3-4 for 55 yards and 190.5, and 32 yards on the ground on five carries.
Garcia and Sinnott led the receivers with 119 and 100 yards, respectively, and five catches each; Brooks added six catches for 40 yards and a bevy of second-teamers hauled in a total of five passes for 93 yards combined. Giddens had 128 yards on 15 carries, while Ward had 11 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown.
The Wildcats amassed 588 yards of total offense, well-balanced; 360 in the air and 228 on the ground. The defense held SEMO to 227 yards, only six of which were on the ground. K-State was actually minus-1 in turnover margin, and lost the time-of-possession battle 30:35-29:25. The Cats were penalized four times for 36 yards; SEMO had five penalties for 65.
WHAT WE LEARNED
1) This team has depth!
After the starters came out, the fun didn’t stop. Multiple skill players had big plays with Johnson at the helm, and the defense was still rocking the house late in the game. Admittedly, it’s an FCS opponent, but they looked good and nobody got exposed.
2) The front seven is sick.
Six yards, and 20 of those six yards came on SEMO’s final drive. With 3:46 left to play, the Redhawks — a team built to run! — had minus-14 rushing yards. I don’t care who you’re playing, that is just dominance.
3) The secondary has questions.
Giving up 221 passing yards wouldn’t normally set off any alarm bells, but this is an FCS opponent who, again, is more of a running team. There weren’t any obvious red flags, just a couple of missed assignments, and the players who made mistakes made far more good plays. But it’s something to keep an eye on as the level of competition escalates.
4) Your concerns about the passing game are alleviated.
RJ Garcia stepped up and may very well be a great #1 receiver. Brooks did his usual job as the possession guy. Sinnott set a single-game personal yardage mark. And Keagan Johnson, expected to be the best of the crowd, sat out as a precautionary measure due to mild injuries. It’ll be fine.
5) The offensive line was... pedestrian.
On the stat sheet, you’ll only see three tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry for the Redhawks. But they got a lot more penetration than you’d like, and Howard was flushed several times. Not the performance you’d expect from this very experienced line, but maybe it’s just first-game rust. (The second-team, on the other hand, was nails, and we saw the welcome return of Taylor Poitier, which everyone can be happy about.)
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
On offense, we have to make this a four-headed beast. Will Howard obviously requires recognition, as do DJ Giddens and RJ Garcia and Ben Sinnott. All four posted top-notch games and we just can’t decide. Deal with it.
On defense, it’s a lot easier. Austin Moore led everyone (as usual) with six tackles, three of which were for loss, and he also recorded two half-sacks. Shoutout to Nate Matlack (sack, two TFLs) and Jacob Parrish (nails in coverage and had the only actual pass breakup among the secondary, although he did make one minor mistake early on).
The Cats host the Troy Trojans next Saturday morning. The Trojans poured points onto Stephen F. Austin today, but also allowed the Lumberjacks to have their way on offense in a 48-30 win. After what we saw today, you have to like the matchup.