True freshman quarterback Will Howard outplayed expectations in his first two games after an injury took senior quarterback Skylar Thompson down for the season.
He had growing pains Saturday against West Virginia when he threw three interceptions in the second half, preventing Kansas State from mounting a second-half comeback.
But there was one moment against the Mountaineers that Howard showcased the “it factor” head coach Chris Klieman praises him for.
The Wildcats were down 24-3 with 3:38 remaining in the second quarter. They needed a touchdown to get themselves back into the game before halftime. After throwing an incomplete on his first pass of the drive, Howard threw seven straight completions — the seventh was a 35-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Malik Knowles.
“He made some tight throws in tight windows, and we were able to move the ball down the field in a two-minute setting,” Klieman said. “[West Virginia] took all the short routes away because time was running out, and we were able to get behind on the post. And [Howard] did not just say, ‘Wow, I thought I could keep methodically moving us down the field,’ he took a shot down the post. He made a great throw. Malik [Knowles] got behind the corner and it was great to see for the momentum.”
The problem? That was the last time K-State scored in the game. The Mountaineers received the ball to begin the second half, and they consumed six minutes of game clock and scored a field goal. The Wildcats couldn’t reverse the momentum.
“We needed a quick stop to get the ball back to the offense so that we could continue on with what we did [on that possession],” Klieman said. “We weren’t able to do that.”
As a result, the game ended in a 37-10 loss.
Not only was it a great sign to see Howard step up like that for a big drive, but it was also great for the Wildcats to get Knowles a reception, resulting in a touchdown. Knowles struggled to get in sync with Howard and Skylar Thompson before he got injured this season. It was Knowles’ only reception of the game, but it was still good to see the connection.
If K-State is going to defeat to No. 14 Oklahoma State on Saturday, they need more consistency on offense. The Cowboys average 29.6 points per game so far this season and the Wildcats will have to keep up. Howard has to give his best performance of the season.
Klieman is not worried about Howard because he knows his freshman quarterback has the maturity to respond well after a bad performance in practice this week.
“[Quarterback] coach [Collin] Klein does a great job,” Klieman said. “We go on to the next play and coach on the run and get him schooled up and we move on the next play. You have to have a short memory a little bit. You have to have it in the back of your mind. You can’t have mistakes where you’re turning the ball over, but we still have to push the ball down field.”
Howard is still very new to college football, and Klieman knows that. But this is also a team that has plenty of talent and is tied with Iowa State for first place in the Big 12 Conference with a 4-1 record after the loss.
The Cowboys are just behind them in second place with a 3-1 record. Growing pains are expected, but the Wildcats are in the race for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
“You have to realize that [Howard] is a true freshman that’s playing high-level football and learning on the run,” Klieman said. “More than anything, I like the way he handles things and I like the way he leads himself. He is leading our offense [no matter how big of a win]. That cannot change because he has to be the catalyst that leads the offense.”
The three interceptions were not all his fault. It takes the work of the wide receivers to run correct routes, the offensive line to give him enough protection and the play calling to be spot on for Howard to be successful.
“We still have to be able to run the correct routes for him to get the ball out on time,” Klieman said. “We have to be able to protect so he knows he is going to have a cleaner pocket to throw the football.”
There are only four games remaining this season, so this game is a major conference game for both teams. The Cowboys’ defense allows only 17.8 points per game — the Wildcats’ offense will need to be in full force with Howard at his best to win.