A 45-23 loss to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl served as an appropriate end to Kansas State’s football season Saturday.
There were moments the Wildcats could be proud of, but ultimately the game ended in disappointment.
The Wildcats played without two key starters on defense and switched receiver Kody Cook to full-time quarterback in a game few picked them to win. They were at a disadvantage from the start, especially in a stadium filled mostly with opposing fans. K-State found a way to overcome those odds early and push Arkansas into the fourth quarter, but it let things get out of control late against a superior team.
“We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “Arkansas is an extremely fine and talented football team. We play a lot of extremely fine and talented football teams during the year, and Arkansas falls in that group. But it wasn’t about Arkansas. It was about us. Our youngsters prepared well, we just didn’t coach them very well today. That created some issues for us.”
So did the Razorbacks’ mixture of talent and depth. Arkansas wore down K-State, 6-7, with an onslaught of powerful blocks and runs, making one crucial play after another in the fourth quarter to turn a competitive game into a blowout.
The Razorbacks, 8-5, were clearly the better team, outgaining the Wildcats 569 yards to 242, and setting a Liberty Bowl record with five rushing touchdowns in front of 61,136 fans.
K-State has managed to win games in spite of similar numbers this season, but it needed more against an SEC opponent that won six of its final seven games.
“Arkansas got our best shot every time tonight,” senior left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “Our execution just came up short.”
The biggest shortfall was defense: The Wildcats had no answers for Arkansas.
Quarterback Brandon Allen moved the Razorbacks with ease between the 20s by completing 20 of 26 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown. Then a triumvirate of running backs — Alex Collins, Kody Walker and Jared Cornelius — did damage in the red zone.
Collins led the way with 185 yards and three touchdowns in 21 carries, often bulldozing K-State defenders after initial contact. He was the obvious choice for Liberty Bowl most outstanding player. Walker added 49 yards and a touchdown in 10 carries, while Cornelius had 27 yards and a TD in two carries.
“Alex ran hard all day,” Allen said. “He was breaking tackles and never going down. He really carried us.”
Running behind the biggest offensive line in football, college or pro, they were too much for K-State’s weakened defense. The Wildcats managed just three stops all afternoon — an interception by Elijah Lee on the opening series, an Arkansas punt at midfield in the second quarter and a blocked kick on the final play of the second quarter.
Otherwise, Arkansas cruised, gaining 8.4 yards per play.
K-State’s top run-stopper, all-conference defensive tackle Will Geary, didn’t make the bowl trip for unspecified disciplinary reasons and the Wildcats were forced to go with backup Matt Seiwert. When he got hurt, they turned to Craig Settles Jr. Arkansas took advantage by rushing for 254 yards.
“Will is a great player, and he really could have been an asset for us this game,” defensive tackle Travis Britz said. “But you have to play with what you got.”
Arkansas also abused a secondary that lacked top cover corner Duke Shelley, who watched from the sideline because of illness. Throw in the absence of safety Dante Barnett and quarterback Jesse Ertz, who both missed the majority of the season, and K-State was truly depleted.
“That has been the story of our season,” senior defensive back Morgan Burns said. “We have had about 1,000 different players play at corner and safety and nickel. … Obviously, we missed Duke.”
Arkansas also gained many yards throwing to uncovered tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle against healthy K-State defenders. A 43-yard pass from Allen to Henry was arguably the biggest play of the game.
For a while, it appeared K-State would be able to go punch for punch with Arkansas. Lee provided an ideal start when he intercepted a pass intended for Henry, and K-State parlayed that into a go-ahead 10-yard touchdown run by Winston Dimel.
But K-State was playing catch-up the rest of the way after Arkansas took a 24-13 halftime lead. K-State got as close as 24-20 on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Dimel in the third quarter and trailed 31-23 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Cook served as K-State’s main source of offense, completing 12 of 24 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. Dimel finished with 58 total yards and two TDs. Things could have been even better for the Wildcats had they turned three Matthew McCrane field goals into touchdowns.
But Arkansas had more weapons and depth. That translated into a convincing victory after the Razorbacks took control early in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-long from midfield, Allen escaped K-State’s pass rush and found Henry streaking down the sideline for a huge gain. Collins scored on the next play. Just like that, the game was over. And K-State knew it.
“We had them on the ropes right there,” Dimel said. “If we just could have stopped them, I think our offense could have got the juice going, but it’s a team game. Our offense didn’t finish in the red zone and we settled for too many field goals. That killed us.
“We didn’t play a complete game, and that’s what we needed to do against this team. They were really solid.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett