The Wildcat offense struggled to get any momentum in a 20-17 heartbreaker against Navy in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Kansas State finished the season on a bitter note as a trick play in the closing seconds set up a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the game for Navy.
K-State fans painted Memphis purple, and head coach Chris Klieman praised the Wildcat faithful for the support.
“We had a great crowd, that’s the first thing,” Klieman said. “I want to thank Kansas State nation for coming out. We had a phenomenal crowd and [we’re] so appreciative of the following that they give these guys.”
Navy entered the matchup as the No. 1 ranked rush offense in the nation, which proved to be a challenge for the Wildcat defense.
In the opening drive of the game, the Wildcats went for it on fourth and four, where a potential touchdown pass was dropped by freshman wide receiver Philip Brooks to give the ball to Navy at the 42-yard line.
“We missed some plays there in the first drive, I missed the throw, we had a dropped ball. There were some plays that we left out there, all of us did,” junior quarterback Skylar Thompson said.
Failure to score on the opening drive proved to be costly as the game went on.
The Midshipman drove down to the K-State seven-yard line, but the defense held Navy to a 21-yard field goal by freshman kicker Bijan Nichols to take a 3-0 lead.
Time of possession was a key factor for both teams in the game. The opening drives took ten minutes off the clock in the first quarter.
Brooks injected life into the Wildcats in the second quarter with a 66-yard punt return to put the Wildcats up 7-0 early in the second quarter. The punt return was the second-longest punt return in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl history.
Navy responded with a drive that featured a 23-yard run by senior quarterback Malcolm Perry on fourth down. That was capped off with a 27-yard touchdown pass to junior slotback Keoni-Kordell Makekau to regain the lead over the Wildcats.
K-State went for it on fourth down again on the Navy 19 yard line and gave the Wildcats a crucial first down late in the half, but the Wildcats were forced to settle for a 39-yard field goal to tie the game 10-10 with under 2:30 left in the half.
The Wildcats went into the half tied with Navy after a 10 point second quarter, despite collecting 84 offensive yards in the half.
Thompson finished the half 5-9 for 44 yards and senior running back James Gilbert led K-State with 31 yards rushing. Freshman wide receiver Malik Knowles got into the mix with five receptions for 34 yards.
The Midshipmen finished the half with 155 total yards, 98 of those yards coming on the ground led by senior quarterback Malcolm Perry.
Navy opened the second half with a touchdown drive with a 20-yard run by sophomore wide receiver Chance Warren to take a 17-10 lead early in the third quarter.
K-State began the first offensive drive of the quarter at the Navy 40 yard line after a 52-yard kickoff return by Knowles, but the drive went south after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and an 18-yard fumble that ended the drive at the K-State 34.
The Wildcats failed to capitalize on the drive.
“We needed to be able to capitalize and give those guys credit, they did a nice job,” Klieman said.
The Midshipmen missed a field goal with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Wildcats an opportunity to tie the game.
K-State woke up and drove down to tie the game 17-17 with a one-yard touchdown by Gilbert.
Navy drove and had an open man down the field on a third and one and hit a 22-yard field goal with five seconds left on the clock to defeat K-State 20-17.
The Midshipmen held onto the football for almost 37 minutes of the game and rushed for 323 yards led by Liberty Bowl MVP Perry who rushed for 213 yards.
“He’s a great athlete,” junior linebacker Elijah Sullivan said. “He’s quick, fast, and like coach said before he runs the whole offense.”
Sullivan was named the defensive MVP for the Wildcats with 11 tackles in the game.
Thompson went 10-14 for 124 yards was the most outstanding offensive player for the Wildcats.
Special teams kept the Wildcats in the game with a total of 138 combined return yards and a touchdown from Brooks.
“We did a really nice job on special teams, we had prepared really well,” Klieman said.
“Special teams has been great for us all year long,” Klieman said.
In a season where the Wildcats were projected to finish ninth in the conference, the team made significant strides in Klieman’s first year. However, K-State looks to lose 27 seniors this year — the most since 2012.
“My message to the guys was thanks for laying down the foundation for a new era of Kansas State football,” Klieman said. “So pleased that I had the opportunity to coach those 27 seniors. They bought in to the new voice in the front of the room.”
K-State will have a long offseason to build on the foundation created in Klieman’s first season.