ANALYSIS: Missed opportunities made the difference in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl

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In the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee, redshirt freshman wide receiver Phillip Brooks runs the ball. The Wildcats fell to Navy 17-20 on Jan. 31.

In the first bowl game of the Chris Klieman coaching era, there were issues on both sides of the ball and the Wildcats simply failed to make crucial fails, culminating in a 17-20 loss to Navy.

“It’s a team game, and we’ll never, ever point fingers … on one side of the ball or the other,” Klieman said. “We all had opportunities to make plays.”

Trouble on the defence

The triple-option offense was the biggest challenge for the Kansas State defense. The Midshipmen entered the matchup as the No. 1 ranked rushing offense in the nation. Senior quarterback Malcolm Perry rushed for 213 yards and threw for 57-yards and a touchdown as Navy finished with 421 total yards of offense.

The Midshipmen had an advantage over the Wildcats with their brand of hard-nosed run game-based offense, which differs from the air raid offense commonly used in the Big 12 conference.

The misdirection out of the backfield was too much for the Wildcats.

The success of the ground game early and gave the Midshipmen opportunities to pull some perfectly-executed trick plays in the second half.

“I thought they did a great job of keeping us off-balance,” senior defensive back Denzel Goolsby said.

Navy managed to pull some trick plays late in the second half that were costly for K-State. The biggest was the 41-yard pass by junior slotback CJ Williams to get the Midshipmen into the red zone.

“It was a couple of plays that were the turning point,” junior linebacker Elijah Sullivan said.

Klieman agreed.

“Give them credit, they pulled out a couple of trick plays at the right time, and they made those plays,” Klieman said. “That is what the game is about — it’s making plays.”

The defense was on the field for over 36 minutes of the game, which is uncharacteristic of the Wildcats who usually control the time of possession.

Offense

K-State struggled to catch on to the football early, which forced the Wildcats to rely on the ground game out of the gate. Heading into the half, the Wildcats had 84 total yards with 40 yards coming on the ground.

The biggest difference in the game was a dropped pass on a fourth and four at the Navy 41 that could have given the Wildcats an early lead, but instead turned the ball over. Navy would take the lead on the ensuing drive.

The Wildcats offense could not get any momentum in the entire game, and when the passing game isn’t working, it often stalls the running game.

The Wildcats did not reach over 100 yards until the fourth quarter and finished the third quarter with -11 yards in the quarter.

“Their defense did a nice job of just keeping us out of rhythm a little bit,” Klieman said.

Navy pressured junior quarterback Skylar Thompson exceptionally well, creating more issues for the already struggling offense.

“They did a nice job blitzing and then showing a blitz and getting out of the blitz when Skylar would check,” Klieman said.

Sophomore linebacker Diego Fagot finished as the Liberty Bowl defensive MVP for Navy with two sacks and a forced fumble.

The biggest momentum killer of the game came after a 52-yard return by redshirt freshman wide receiver Malik Knowles to the Navy 40 yard line. An unsportsmanlike penalty followed by an 8-yard fumble on a botched snap and another sack-fumble put the Wildcats at the K-State 34 yard line.

The failure to get the ground game going was costly for K-State.

“It was a little surprising, especially because it seemed like it was working early,” senior wide receiver Dalton Schoen said.

The Wildcats finished with 46 yards on the ground.

“It’s always hard for this offense when we can’t get the ball going on the ground,” Schoen said.

The Wildcats managed to get offensive momentum in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough as K-State gave the ball back to Navy at 17-17 with 5:14 left to play.

Special Teams

Special teams kept the Wildcats in the game, and gave K-State plenty of good returns.

The 66-yard return by redshirt freshman wide receiver and return man Phillip Brooks was the piece that kept the Wildcats in the game.

The special teams got attention from current Chiefs quarterback and former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“We did a really nice job on special teams — we had prepared really well,” Klieman said.

The special teams unit set up plenty of opportunities for the Wildcats, but they failed to capitalize.

The Wildcats finished with a combined 138 return yards, which was for a large portion of the game, more than the entire offense.

The Wildcats struggled offensively, but K-State remained in the game despite the issues on the ground.

K-State will return to action in the Spring, but this loss will be on the mind of many for the next few months.

Wildcats also looks to lose 27 seniors this year — the most since 2012.

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