Wildcat football starts slow and finishes big in season-opening comeback win over South Dakota

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K-State eked out a win following a less-than-stellar opening game for the team against South Dakota on Saturday night. (Alex Todd | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State football team opened the 2018 season with a rough late win against FCS opponent South Dakota.

It took coming back from a 24-12 deficit and scoring 15 unanswered points— all in the fourth quarter— to start the season off 1-0.

SLOW START

In their first possessions, both South Dakota and K-State punted after three plays.

K-State’s defense held South Dakota again on its second drive and got the ball back for the offense. However, the Wildcat offense’s second drive was not any better than the first. As a matter of fact, it was worse.

Barnes took the hand off, was wrapped up and had the ball knocked out of his arms. South Dakota jumped on the ball and took back possession in great field position at the K-State 17-yard line.

As a result of the turnover, South Dakota got on the scoreboard first with a successful 27-yard field goal from kicker Mason Lorber.

From there, it seemed that things would start to look up for the Wildcats.

Thompson busted open a 44-yard run into Coyote territory. Three plays later, he ran again for 10 yards, making it to the five-yard line to set up a first and goal. Tight end Nick Lenners would drop a touchdown pass, causing K-State to settle for a field goal.

Sophomore kicker Blake Lynch stepped up and put any concerns about replacing Matthew McCrane to rest.

Lynch’s first career field goal attempt came from 24 yards out, and he put it through the uprights to tie the game at 3-3.

With 2:23 to go in the opening quarter, the Coyotes scored the game’s first touchdown. Quarterback Austin Simmons took off for the end zone and beat out K-State linebacker Sam Sizelove to the pylon to give South Dakota a 10-3 lead.

Settling for a field goal became a common theme of the first half for the Wildcat offense.

Lynch put through three more kicks in the second quarter, from 22, 38 and 44 yards. He went four-for-four on field goals for the night, making him one field goal shy of tying the school-record for most field goals made in a game.

The bright lights didn’t bother Lynch at all in his first start at K-State.

“It was a lot of fun, I’ve been waiting on that for a while,” Lynch said after the game.

Even when the offense was not producing, Lynch was comfortable with the source of scoring for his team falling squarely on his shoulders.

“That’s just my job,” Lynch said. “Just go out there when things aren’t going well and put ‘em through.”

Lynch’s three field goals in the second quarter were good to give the Wildcats a 12-10 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the first half.

PENALTIES

There were several things that contributed to K-State offensive drives resulting in field goals, but penalties were at the top of the list.

Bill Snyder-coached teams are typically known for their attention to detail and limiting mistakes. That was not the case tonight, as the Wildcats collected 13 penalties for 129 yards.

Several of those penalties stopped big plays. Redshirt junior quarterback Alex Delton had a big run called back due to a holding call against the offensive line. The same thing happened to Barnes in the second half.

Early in the second quarter, senior defensive back Duke Shelley fielded a punt at his own five-yard line and took it 95 yards to the end zone. Unfortunately for K-State, it turned out that an illegal block-in-the-back penalty was called against the Wildcats, bringing back the touchdown.

MELTDOWN AT END OF FIRST HALF

For a fleeting moment in the second quarter, it appeared that something may go in the Wildcats’ favor, but two more penalties quickly put an end to that.

Simmons launched the football down the left sideline to a Coyote receiver, but senior defensive back Elijah Walker came over from the safety position, went up and grabbed the interception. However, the Wildcats were called for pass interference, bringing back the interception and returning the ball to South Dakota.

To make matters worse, Walker got up off the ground after being tackled and spiked the football on the ground, in what appeared to be an expression of excitement, and received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Between those two penalties, the Coyotes regained possession of the ball and an additional 30 yards.

South Dakota took advantage of the K-State miscue, later scoring on a seven-yard connection from Simmons to Dakarai Allen. That touchdown put the Coyotes ahead 17-12 with 1:29 left before halftime.

After the ensuing kickoff, K-State got the ball back with 1:22 on the clock.

Delton took the snap, stood in the pocket and launched a pass across the middle of the field. South Dakota linebacker Alex Gray stepped in front of the pass, intercepting it and returning it 25 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.

Just like that, the Coyotes were up 24-12 and would take that lead into the locker room at halftime.

DOWNHILL SPIRAL

The score remained locked at 24-12 in favor of South Dakota all the way through the third quarter, and would not change until 12:12 left in the fourth quarter.

Other than a missed South Dakota 47-yard field goal attempt from Lorber, neither team came all that close to scoring in the third quarter.

Delton and junior wide receiver Dalton Schoen connected on a 21-yard pass, but a holding penalty brought it back and the Wildcats had to punt two plays later.

The very first play of the fourth quarter began in the worst way possible for K-State.

Thompson had Schoen wide open with a step or two on his defender on the left sideline and let one loose right for him. The ball hit him in the hands, but he bobbled it up in the air and defensive back Phillip Powell made the interception.

Even with 14:51 left in the game, things were starting to feel dim for the Wildcats. The offense was stagnant almost all night, and even though it was not scoring, South Dakota seemed to be very much in control of the game. For K-State, things seemed as dark as the September night sky.

A SHIFT IN MOMENTUM

With a little more than 12 minutes left in the game, a spark was lit inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Senior wide receiver Isaiah Zuber caught a punt at his own 15-yard line and took off. Zuber hit the left sideline, read a few blocks and cut back to the middle of the field. At that point, it was the end of the story and he went untouched the rest of the way to the end zone.

Zuber’s 85-yard punt return score ignited the crowd and breathed new life into the stadium and the football team. The touchdown — K-State’s first of the night — cut the South Dakota lead down to five.

On the fourth play of the following South Dakota drive, junior defensive end Reggie Walker sacked Simmons for a 10-yard loss. The team’s first sack of the game sent the Wildcat crowd roaring.

The crowd kept up its intensity, rattling the Coyotes and forcing them to call a timeout. The crowd would not relent, as the timeout was followed by a false start on the next play before South Dakota punted.

“K-State, we get the best fans in America,” Zuber said. “When the crowd get loud it’s right, you know. I think they [South Dakota] got two or three delay of games, so the crowd really helped us out today.”

OFFENSE FINDS A RHYTHM

After a slow night, Thompson and Co. finally found its rhythm and looked like a well-oiled machine.

Barnes began the drive with a 34-yard run, all the way down to the South Dakota 30-yard line. Before that run, he had a total of 25 rushing yards the whole game. He finished the game with 103 yards on 21 carries.

Two plays later, Thompson completed just his fifth pass of the game to Zuber for a 15-yard gain. The quarterback-receiver duo was not done yet though. With 7:21 left in the game, Thompson fired a pass to Zuber in the back of the end zone. Zuber went up above the defense to haul in the ball, and drug his foot to complete catch.

The 10-yard touchdown catch put the Wildcats up 25-24. Opting to go for a two-point conversion, Barnes ran up the middle and dove into the end zone to put K-State up by a field goal, 27-24.

One might think that Thompson and Zuber have a connection.

The last time that K-State played at home, the game ended with a touchdown pass from Thompson to Zuber to defeat Iowa State 20-19 as time expired. Saturday night, the two connected again on what proved to be a game-winning touchdown.

“Skylar, that’s my boy,” Zuber said.

Barnes notices the connection between the quarterback-receiver duo as well.

“Those dudes have been on the same page since Skylar got here,” Barnes said. “Throwing routes after practice, doing the extra little things to make their relationship a lot better.”

WILD FINISH

K-State’s defense held strong when South Dakota got the ball after giving up the lead. With the help of the crowd, it forced another delay of game penalty and then made the Coyotes punt.

It seemed like it would be the final drive for K-State and that it could just run the clock out. Barnes and Thompson both had big runs, and with under a minute to go, it seemed that the Wildcats would escape with a comeback win on their home turf.

With around 55 seconds left on the clock, Barnes fumbled the ball. South Dakota jumped on it, making that its second fumble recovery of the game— both from Barnes.

Barnes fumbled three times on the night, giving up two. After the game, head coach Bill Snyder and Barnes both addressed that fact.

“Alex is not that kind of player, he feels bad about it,” Snyder said. “He got up in the locker room and apologized to his teammates, he’s a humble young guy.”

South Dakota marched down the field, and the game eventually came down to a 51-yard field goal attempt. Lorber could not hit and send the game to overtime.

K-State escapes with a narrow 27-24 victory.

The Wildcats must now prepare for 18th-ranked Mississippi State to come to town next Saturday. The matchup with the Bulldogs is scheduled to kick at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

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Jarrett Whitson
I’m Jarrett Whitson, the sports editor this semester. I’m from Blue Rapids, KS, a town of just over 1,000 people about 40 miles north of Manhattan. I’m a junior in Public Relations, and a member of FarmHouse Fraternity. I love playing and talking about sports— especially college football