On a cold Thursday night at Milan Puskar Stadium, style points lost all meaning.
Kansas State ran for 1 yard, West Virginia turned the ball over more often than it reached the end zone and penalty flags flew like confetti at a parade.
The Wildcats, 8-2, 6-1 in the Big 12, walked away from the clutter as victors, beating the Mountaineers 26-20 for an important victory that keeps them even with Baylor and TCU atop the Big 12 standings. But you won’t hear them bragging about much else in the days ahead.
“Immensely disappointing,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said.
It was fitting that a small crowd, announced at 47,683, turned out for the game.
The most exciting play of the night — a tipped pass that bounced off multiple players and ended up in the hands of West Virginia, 6-5, 4-4, receiver Kevin White for an apparent touchdown — didn’t even hold up after a replay review.
Instead, the highlights included a 43-yard punt return near the end of the first half and 196 receiving yards from senior Tyler Lockett, a clutch late field goal from Matthew McCrane, interceptions by Dante Barnett and Randall Evans and a career-high 400 passing yards from Jake Waters.
“That was ugly,” K-State receiver Curry Sexton said. “They just never died. Luckily, we were able to pull it out. The way we played and the way we finished drives was pretty pathetic. We are happy to get out of here with a win, but that was ugly.”
A long list of lowlights made things ugly, but one play stood out. In the third quarter, the Mountaineers were flagged for running into K-State punter Nick Walsh on one end of the field while fumbling the return on the other.
The Wildcats declined the penalty and took over in prime scoring range, only to be denied a touchdown at the goal line. The lack of a reliable running attack, even against one of the Big 12’s worst run defenses, left them kicking a field goal.
After a week of talking about the importance of establishing the run in this game, K-State had its worst rushing game in nearly two decades, gaining 1 yard on 29 attempts. Running backs Charles Jones (4 yards) and Robinson (minus-7 yards) were particularly ineffective, continually running into walls of defenders and getting tackled in the backfield. But Waters wasn’t much better, gaining 13 yards.
K-State’s offensive line will shoulder blame, too. The way the Wildcats were running the ball, third-and-short felt like third-and-long.
“It’s very frustrating knowing that you can’t get that 1 yard,” senior center B.J. Finney said. “You take great pride in being able to get push. I don’t know what has not been going our way or what the cause is, but we have got to get it figured out and we have got to get it fixed.”
Snyder described West Virginia’s gameplan as a major factor.
“Today the biggest problem was, it’s one of those things you have heard me say so many times, anybody can take away anything if they want to, and perhaps leave themselves in the woods in other areas,” Snyder said. “That is what happened today. That doesn’t solve our problems, I assure you of that. But that was the issue today.”
Whatever the case, K-State, which managed 34 yards the previous game against TCU, has now failed to run the ball with any efficiency in back-to-back games.
On this night, it flirted with its first negative rushing outing since 1996 against Texas Tech in the Big 12’s inaugural game.
McCrane salvaged as many points as he could, connecting on four of six, including an important 32-yarder with 4:21 remaining in the fourth quarter that gave K-State a two-score lead.
But Waters truly saved the day on offense by completing 22 of 34 passes and a touchdown.
“It’s just doing your job,” Waters said. “When they call a play run or pass I just have to do my job. … I felt good throwing the football. I had no clue it was 400 yards or anything like that. I was so involved in the game. It was just frustrating to get the ball and drive down to the goal line and not get in the end zone. We are normally the best at that.”
Waters’ main target was Lockett, who caught 10 passes for 196 yards, joining Quincy Morgan as the only two K-State players to top 1,000 receiving yards in two different seasons.
Combined with a special-teams touchdown and four turnovers on defense, it was enough for victory.
But the game was much closer than it could have been. If not for an unforced fumble by West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood at the goal line in the first quarter and several questionable throws by Clint Trickett, who completed 12 of 25 passes for 112 yards with two interceptions, K-State might not have won.
Though the Wildcats have won 46 consecutive games when leading at halftime, that streak nearly came to an end after backup quarterback Skyler Howard replaced an injured and ineffective Trickett.
By throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns, Howard guided West Virginia back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to as close as 23-17 midway through the fourth quarter and 26-20 with 53 seconds left.
Normally, K-State would have tried to kill West Virginia’s comeback by shortening the game with its running game. But Waters had to throw the whole way and then the Wildcats had to play defense. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.
“Any win that you get in the Big 12 Conference, you earned it,” K-State defensive end Ryan Mueller said. “You out-competed and you out-worked your opponent. So any time you win it is a big relief off your shoulders. It feels like you escaped.”