Avery Johnson captured the 2023 Pop-Tarts Bowl MVP honors while DJ Giddens provided stability to the offense, and Kansas State brought home college football’s only toaster trophy after a 28-19 win over North Carolina State on Thursday night in Orlando.
A late touchdown catch by Jayce Brown followed by an interception by Jacob Parrish sealed a game that was never out of reach for either squad.
The Cats came out hot. Giddens ran for 20 and 13 on his first two carries, and after the Pack forced a 4th-and-5 at their own 37, K-State (9-4, 6-3 Big 12) went for it. Johnson dumped a quick pass to a streaking Giddens who took it to the house, and the Wildcats were on the board first. Special teams then stepped up, laying out Julian Gray on the kickoff return to pin NC State at their own eight.
Although the Pack got 15 yards a Brennan Anderson keeper on their first play, they netted zero after that before punting. Sterling Lockett finally got on the stat sheet for the first time, albeit with a fair catch. The Cats went 3-and-out, but again pinned NC State (9-4, 6-2 ACC)inside their own 15. Again, Armstrong gained 15 on first down, and again NC State went nowhere afterward. Seth Porter was hit early on the punt, but the half-dozen flags that flew were instead for a block in the back on K-State.
Giddens immediately got the penalty yardage back, but the offense stalled again. NC State’s, on the other hand, got untracked. The Wolfpack chewed 7:11 off the clock on a 13-play, 64-yard drive. The problem: they needed 74. On 4th-and-1 from the 12, K-State stuffed Armstrong to get the ball back.
It looked like another 3-and-out for the Cats, but Jack Blumer rambled for 30 on a fake punt to get K-State well into Wolfpack territory. A nice run by Giddens was followed by a 28-yarder to Garrett Oakley, and Giddens scored from four yards out a play later to make it 14-0 K-State.
The Pack got it right back, however. K-State had two near-interceptions on the drive, but NC State was able to move and finally scored on a 31-yard run by Armstrong to cut the lead in half.
Finally, with 1:42 to go in the half, Johnson intentionally ran the ball for the first time, gaining 12 on a 3rd-and-5. A few plays later, he did it again, scrambling for a 19-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead. With a minute to go in the half, the Pack drove down to the eight, but with four seconds left opted to kick a 26-yarder, and the Cats went into the half with a 21-10 lead.
A 49-yard field goal from Brayden Narveson ended NC State’s first possession of the second half, and after K-State chose to punt from their own 46, Narveson missed from 52 to keep the margin at 21-13. But the Cats went 3-and-out again.
The defense held, but on fourth down the Wolfpack whipped out their own fake punt, as Trent Pennix stepped into the snap and raced 60 yards for a score. NC State went for two to try and tie the game, but VJ Payne absolutely obliterated Armstrong as he dropped back to pass, preserving a two-point head for the Cats.
After a 22-yard completion to Jayce Brown, the offense sputtered again. Much punting ensued, with both teams punting twice. Seth Porter returned NC State’s second punt of the sequence for a touchdown, but it was called back for a block in the back.
And then another touchdown was erased when Oakley got called for holding on a 52-yard touchdown pass to Jadon Jackson. But the Cats relentlessly kept moving, churning clock in the process, until Johnson threw a perfect fade to Brown for an 11-yard touchdown pass to make it a two-score game with 2:48 to go.
And 14 seconds later Armstrong threw a strike... to Jacob Parrish. That effectively ended the game. Giddens and Johnson kept it on the ground, and an 8-yard carry by Johnson on 4th-and-3 with 24 seconds left officially capped things off.
With Cooper Beebe pancaking the guy in front of him as an exclamation point to his Wildcat career.
Johnson had 178 yards on 14-31 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and added 71 yards on seven carries, including a rushing touchdown. Giddens ran for 152 yards on 28 carries and caught one pass for 37 yards, scoring twice. Brown was the primary receiver on the night, leading the Cats with both five catches and 52 yards and a score.
For the Wolfpack, Anderson was 14-28 for 164 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception, and also ran for 121 yards on 17 carries. NC State’s running backs were held to only 31 yards on the ground. Freshman phenom KC Concepcion had 72 yards on seven catches and 23 yards on three carries for a total of 95 all-purpose yards.
The Cats outgained the Pack 436-399, 178-164 in the air and 258-235 on the ground. The Cats, normally great on third down, were held to 4-15, but turned that into 8-15 by going 4-4 on fourth down. Time of possession was almost even at 31-29, while K-State was hit with 6 penalties for 55 yards compared to 3-17 for the Wolfpack. The Cats got the benefit of the only turnover of the game.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Honestly, nothing. In the current environment where players opt out or hit the portal, it’s almost impossible to tell what tonight’s performance really means for the future. K-State will certainly have key contributors in 2024 who aren’t even on campus yet, and there’s the small matter of a massive turnover on the offensive line over the summer to contend with as well.
Avery Johnson showed a lot of poise, and has a good sense of when to just bail out of a play, but he’s going to have to get better with the arm. He has a cannon, but on a lot of passes tonight he fired that cannon when a softer touch was really called for.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
On offense, despite Johnson being named the bowl MVP, we’ll give our honor to DJ Giddens, who was his usual indomitable self. On defense, we’re giving it to Desmond Purnell. Des was phenomenal tonight, seemingly involved in one way or another on almost every big play.
The University of Tennessee-Martin, on August 31, 2024. The long dark winter begins now.