After jumping out to a 10-0 lead early, #9 Kansas State got steamrolled by a motivated #5 Alabama squad which ripped off 35 straight points on the way to a 45-20 win in the 89th Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
A series of debatable coaching decisions and badly executed plays in the three minutes surrounding halftime turned a 14-10 Alabama (11-2) lead into a 35-10 blowout, and there may be “what if”s being asked for a long time, because early on K-State (10-4) really appeared to be the better squad.
After an ill-advised decision to return the kickoff started the Wildcats at their own 17, K-State was moving the ball on the opening drive. A 23-yard play to Ben Sinnott put the Cats in a very threatening position, but Howard got too much air under a pass to Vaughn and it was picked off by Jordan Battle, who Howard never saw in coverage.
The Cats forced a three-and-out to regain possession, and Adrian Martinez came into the game for a couple of plays before Howard re-entered. Passes to Kurt Warner, Phillip Brooks, and Sinnot all went for first downs, and then Vaughn legged it into the red zone, but got dropped for a loss on the next play to force another third down. An incompletion to Warner forced a field goal attempt from 41, which Ty Zentner blasted right down the middle for a 3-0 Wildcat lead.
Alabama got some traction on the next drive, but a huge sack by Daniel Green stalled the drive and forced another punt. On the very next play, Vaughn slipped through the line and raced the entire Alabama secondary 88 yards for a touchdown.
The Cats appeared to have another three-and-out lined up, but on third down Young escaped and found Jameer Gibbs for 59 yards and a trip to the red zone. On third down, Young found Isaiah Bond to get the Tide on the board and make it 10-7.
K-State went three-and-out after another poor decision to return a kickoff, this time by Brooks, and a 47-yard pass to Jermaine Burton set up a two-yard touchdown pass from Young to Cameron Latu to give the Tide a 14-10 lead.
Brooks muffed the kickoff, but Alabama was offsides and had to kick again which resulted in a fair catch by Knowles. Martinez came in again, immediately picking up a first down with his legs. On third down, Howard came back in and found Warner to move the chains twice in a row, although the second one was called back because Warner wasn’t an eligible receiver.
Howard hit Sinnott for a first down, and D.J. Dale was called for a personal foul away from the play. The catch was overturned, but the penalty still gave K-State 15 yards and a first down. On third down, Howard dumped off to Warner who was tackled a yard short, and K-State did not hesitate to go for it. Howard tossed to Knowles on the sideline to move the chains. Knowles had his helmet ripped off, but there was no flag. On 4th-and-4 at the 24, Howard fired over the middle to Sinnott, and set up first-and-goal. But the Cats couldn’t push it in, and turned it over on downs at the two.
After stopping Gibbs for no gain on first down, Chris Klieman called timeout, obviously hoping to get the ball back. It was a terrible mistake. Five plays and 96 yards later, Alabama took a 21-10 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Young to Burton.
K-State tried an onside kick to start the second half, which didn’t work; Young made it 28-10 three plays later by throwing a perfect deep ball for a 32-yard touchdown to Ja’Corey Brooks.
Howard and Vaughn botched a handoff which Vaughn still somehow turned into yards, Sinnott dropped a pass, then Howard was picked off by Brian Branch. Jase McClellan immediately rushed for a 17 yard touchdown and suddenly the Tide led 35-10, having scored 21 points in less than three minutes.
Zentner ended the unanswered streak by the Tide with a 28-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but Alabama responded after a trade of punts with a 47-yard pass from Young to Kobe Prentice to go up 42-13; it became 45-13 four minutes into the final quarter when Will Reichard added a 49-yarder.
Jordan Schippers scored on a one-yard run after DJ Giddens pretty much single-handedly carried K-State downfield as the game wound down, narrowing the margin to 45-20.
Will Howard was a painful 18-35 for 210 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions, and he also lost 23 yards on sacks. Vaughn finished with 133 yards on 22 carries, while Giddens had 67 on nine. Giddens also added 48 yards on three receptions; Sinnott and Warner also had 48 yards on three and five catches respectively, Brooks had 44 on four.
Young was phenomenal, and probably secured his draft status. The Alabama quarterback was 15-21 for 321 yards and five touchdowns, with no turnovers.
What We Learned
Alabama’s simply just a much more talented football team. It’s that simple. Years of lackluster recruiting have forced Kansas State to outsmart everyone, but at a certain point that sometimes just doesn’t work.
Hopefully the vastly-improved recruiting over the last couple of years will help close the gap here, but as we saw with Snyder I it takes time. Recruiting services weren’t a thing then, but the high-octane K-State teams from 1997-2003 were full of guys who’d have been four-stars, and even a smattering of fives.
We can also question the coaching decisions surrounding halftime, and there are good arguments for them being mistakes as well as good arguments for them being worthwhile gambles. If Howard hits Sinnott for a touchdown on fourth and goal from the two, he’s a genius. Instead it was a mistake.
But the blame isn’t entirely on the coaching staff. Receivers were dropping balls left and right, most notably the usually sure-handed Sinnott, who maybe dropped one ball all season long before today. There were multiple botched handoffs between Howard and Vaughn. And while Young dropped some dimes K-State’s secondary had just no chance to defend, the defense as a whole seemed to revert to 2020 levels of tackling after halftime.
Players of the Game
On offense, we’re going to split the honors between Deuce Vaughn and DJ Giddens. Giddens racked up over 100 yards of offense himself, so he’s worthy. Defensively, V.J. Payne takes home the trophy. He led the team with 10 tackles, and also had one of the team’s two sacks. Yeah, he missed a tackle on one of Alabama’s touchdowns, but who didn’t?
You’ll note that we just honored two true freshmen, who just happened to be the two I pointed out in our Q&A with Roll Bama Roll the other day. Heh.
The long cold winter, and the expectation that this team will challenge again in 2023.