This is what Jesse Ertz can do with a season of starting experience and a healthy throwing shoulder.
Ertz, Kansas State’s senior quarterback, toyed with Central Arkansas defenders during a 55-19 victory Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium, completing 10 of 16 passes for a career high 333 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats’ first game of the season.
He played so well that he posted an astounding QB rating of 319.8, the highest mark in program history.
He has never looked better as a passer. A year after being labeled a run-first quarterback incapable of throwing down field, Ertz bombarded the Bears with three touchdown passes that eclipsed 50 yards.
“It’s nice to have an arm that works,” Ertz said of his surgically repaired right shoulder. “It was definitely good just because last year I felt bad not hitting a lot of explosive plays down field. I know we had guys who could run and stuff, but I didn’t hit that many. I was definitely looking forward to being healthy and more mature. I was looking forward to hitting some of those plays in games. To hit three of them was fun.”
The big night got started with a nifty back-shoulder pass to Isaiah Zuber in the corner of the end zone. He then connected with Byron Pringle for a 55-yard strike, giving him the confidence to find Isaiah Harris for a 69-yard score and Dalton Schoen for a 70-yard bomb.
Not bad considering his previous career high for passing yardage was 207 against Stanford almost exactly one year ago. He topped that in the first half.
“We all knew this was going to happen, that he was going to take steps forward in the passing game,” K-State running back Alex Barnes said of Ertz. “This is only the beginning. Did you see how poised he was in the pocket? He was really able to sit in there and be comfortable and make strikes downfield.”
It was a reversal of fortunes for K-State’s offense, which typically ran over defenses last season behind Ertz and running backs Alex Barnes and Justin Silmon. The Wildcats found it difficult to move the ball on the ground against a Central Arkansas defensive front that allowed just 2.3 yards per rush last season and loaded the box on Saturday.
Barnes, K-State’s top running back, managed 29 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Silmon didn’t play and probably won’t next week, K-State coach Bill Snyder said. Early on, the Wildcats needed exceptional play on special teams to build a lead. Central Arkansas pulled within 17-16 midway through the second quarter.
K-State appeared shaky on defense as it tried to replace former stars Jordan Willis, Elijah Lee, Chameachealle Moore and Dante Barnett. Things appeared anything but easy. The Bears gained 421 yards and had noticeable success running the option.
“We will practice tonight at midnight on playing the option, which we have yet to play in the course of this ballgame,” Snyder said. “There are some other things in there, but for anyone to continually be able to run the same play over and over again and still get such positive yardage out of it tells a bad story.”
Things turned around when Ertz started looking down field. Once he got going, K-State had too much firepower for Central Arkansas.
“Jesse was great all camp, all summer, all spring,” Pringle sasid. “Hopefully we will see more of Jesse doing something like that.”
The Wildcats began to flex their aerial muscles when Ertz found Pringle for a long score that put K-State on top 24-16. Pringle looked every bit like a No. 1 receiver on the highlight play, catching a pass near the sideline, getting past his defender with a juke move and then outrunning everyone to the end zone.
It was the first of three straight scores for K-State.
After forcing Central Arkansas to go three-and-out on its next series, K-State defensive back D.J. Reed returned the punt 62 yards for a touchdown. It was his second big return of the day, and his third highlight play. He also opened the night with a 96-yard kickoff return. He rounded out the showing by making an interception.
K-State closed out the first half with another score when Ertz found Schoen, a sophomore from Overland Park, across the middle for 70 yards.
The Wildcats led 38-16, and the Bears’ hopes of pulling an upset were effectively over. But Ertz wasn’t done.
He kept throwing in the second half, and found Isaiah Harris down the right sideline for a 69-yard touchdown.
The big day says a lot about both Ertz and his receivers. Ertz played the second half of the 2016 season with an injured throwing shoulder and fixed it with surgery in the winter. He misses spring practices in recovery, and proved his time away from the field was worth it.
His top targets, Pringle (121) and Harris (118) both topped 100 yards and Schoen (70) came close.
K-State proved it could run the ball last season. On Saturday, it showed it can move the ball through the air, too.
“It sends a message to people that we are deadly in the passing game,” Barnes said. “We have receivers that ... are all experienced and know their assignments. It is going to be special what we do in the air this year.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett