LAWRENCE — With so much on the line, No. 21 Kansas State football came into Lawrence in a battle with the No. 25 ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Unlike recent history, the game came down to the final drive. Similarly to recent history, the Wildcats came out on top, defeating the Jayhawks 31-27, finishing the game with 15 unanswered points.
“Resolve, toughness, battling for your brothers,” head coach Chris Klieman said about how K-State played. “That was a good football team we beat in a really good environment, and we knew we were going to get their best shot and I think we did get their best shot.”
The game was ended by two veterans — quarterback Will Howard and sixth-year wide receiver Phillip Brooks. Before the game-sealing play occurred, Howard made sure to get it to his guy.
“We were actually planning on running a different play and I said I wanted that one,” Howard said. “Got Phillip the ball and let him do his thing.”
Before the nail in the coffin, a plethora of chaos occurred in David Booth Kansas Memorial Football Stadium.
The first half was a constant push-and-pull between the two sunflower state programs. While the Wildcats scored two quicker drives, the Jayhawks melted the clock.
“I was concerned because we couldn’t get off the field,” Klieman said. “We couldn’t get off the field. Credit to them, credit to their offense and their coaches.”
Howard began the night with a 46-yard bomb to wide receiver Jayce Brown. The drive ended four plays later in the hands of tight end Ben Sinnott.
A quick exchange of possession from each team gave Kansas the ball. Jayhawk quarterback Cole Ballard received the start ahead of Jason Bean who got injured against Texas Tech the week prior. His first two throws, both on the second drive, each went for first downs. Jayhawk running back Devin Neal hit a highlight juke for a 36-yard touchdown, beginning the battle between him and K-State running back DJ Giddens in the half.
“Being able to go out there and have the competition, he make a run, I make a run, keep on going back and forth, it felt good,” Giddens said.
A recovered fumble by the Jayhawk offense and a 33-yard Ballard throw to wide receiver Quentin Skinner set Kansas in the red zone. Neal sealed the deal with a walk-in score, but a blocked extra point returned to the opposite end by Keenan Garber marked the score 13-9 Kansas.
“The blocked PAT return, that really changed the game,” Klieman said. “Nate Matlack did a phenomenal job splitting the gap, getting a big block.”
The Wildcats responded with Giddens’ own impressive first down run. A defensive holding on fourth-and-3 on the Jayhawk 23-yard line led to wide receiver Keagan Johnson giving K-State a 16-13 lead.
The first half battle once more swayed as Ballard found wide receiver Lawrence Arnold in the end zone to end the half up 20-16.
The Wildcats’ poor tackling and defensive errors sprung back up instantly in the second half.
Ballard threw a wide open pass to tight end Mason Fairchild for 59 yards, leading to Neal’s third touchdown.
“Some of it was alignments,” Klieman said about the defensive struggles early. “And then when they did try to throw the football … we changed some coverages up. … I don’t think we tackled especially well.”
Howard proceeded to miss Giddens for a walk-in touchdown, but the defense stepped up.
“Nobody flinches, you know, we were down at Texas, nobody flinched,” Klieman said. “We were really down at Oklahoma State: nobody flinched. … Keep fighting, keep the fight up. That’s the culture … that’s culture on display.”
A Jayhawk punt and then a dropped pick-six opportunity for Kansas turned the game around. The Wildcat offense marched down the field aided by running back Treshaun Ward bringing in a 52-yard run. Giddens ended the drive as Howard converted the two-point conversion with a juke.
Down 27-24, safety Kobe Savage secured an interception just to be followed by another interception to KU cornerback Mello Dotson.
Two punts followed, but the K-State punt actually benefited the Wildcats. A muffed punt landed in the hands of wide receiver Ty Bowman to give the Wildcats the ball back.
The next drive was huge for K-State’s quarterback.
Howard started by completing a third-and-7 pass to Brown for 29 yards as he finished with 96 on the night.
“He’s been huge,” Howard said. “He’s been so explosive … having him step in and add to that [wide receiver] room is big and is big for the future of this place.”
After the big connection, Howard took it himself.
On third-and-1, Howard kept the option, using his feet to take a 31-27 lead with a 14-yard rushing touchdown.
An interception from safety Marques Sigle followed. Sigle said the defense’s second half improvement was not due to adjustments.
“We just had to start playing like ourselves,” Sigle said. “First half wasn’t us, we knew that.”
K-State had 5:33 to end the game.
Three minutes later, Howard and the K-State offense had a chance to end the game. And in that moment, the senior went to a sixth-year wide receiver.
With the game on the line, Howard found Brooks on the sideline for the first down. A review was held but the call stood.
“All the trust in the world, that’s mister reliable right there,” Howard said. “I know when I need him, he’s gonna be there and he ran a great route.”
The Wildcats knelt it out and completed the 11-point comeback, winning their 15th straight Sunflower Showdown in gutsy fashion.
“It means everything,” offensive lineman Cooper Beebe said about never losing to Kansas in his career. “Especially being a Kansas kid, you know, this one’s special to me.”
The Jayhawks outgained the Wildcats 396 yards to 331 despite K-State’s win. The Wildcats found many different ways to win.
“We’re gonna give it our all for sure, we gonna empty the tank” Giddens said. “That’s one thing we always do.”
K-State moves to an 8-3 record and 6-2 in the Big 12. The Wildcats enter the regular season finale at home with a chance at the Big 12. K-State does not control its own destiny, needing other Big 12 teams to lose with the new tiebreaker rules, but they plan to finish strong.
“We heard about it and we knew it was going on but for the most part we were locked in on KU,” Howard said. “We knew what we had to do to get the win and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. None of that tiebreaker stuff matters.”
(Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)
Editor’s note: Added the dateline to the article. Sports editor Luke Lazarczyk reported on and wrote this story and the game recap from Lawrence.