Breathe easy Kansas State football fans.
The Wildcats survived a major scare from South Dakota and won their first game of the season 27-24 on Saturday at Snyder Stadium.
You can thank Isaiah Zuber for that.
The junior receiver helped K-State wrestle victory away from the jaws of defeat with some late heroics that may signal a personal turning point in his college career. After two seasons of serving as little more than a solid possession target, Zuber evolved into a one-man highlight machine and scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
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His first came on an 85-yard punt return with South Dakota leading 24-12. The Wildcats had scored all of their points off field goals to that point and needed a jolt to get back in the game. Zuber delivered by weaving his way through a wall of would-be-tacklers on his way to the end zone. Later, he reeled in a pass from Skylar Thompson in the back of the end zone with 7:21 left to give K-State its first lead of the second half.
The Wildcats led 27-24 after a two-point conversion from Alex Barnes, and they held on from there. … Barely.
Barnes lost a fumble as K-State attempted to run out the clock in the final minute and South Dakota crossed midfield with a chance to force overtime. The game ended with South Dakota missing a 51-yard field goal.
K-State found a way to win on a night where mistakes outnumbered highlights. Still, it was the type of effort that might make you forget everything you thought you knew about this K-State football team.
Thought you were going to see a new offense? Think again. New coordinator Andre Coleman was anything but inventive with his play calls, and K-State scored all but seven of its points on field goals and special teams. Expected to see a dominant offensive line? Too bad. The Wildcats couldn’t live up to their reputation in that area.
The Wildcats went back and forth between quarterbacks Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson, with neither passer lighting up the stat sheet.
Thompson completed 8 of 14 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. Delton was 5 of 14 for 91 yards and a costly interception that South Dakota returned 25 yards for a touchdown.
Barnes rushing for 103 yards and Zuber topping 150 total yards were the lone highlights on offense.
Wanted change on defense? You probably wanted more than this. South Dakota quarterback Austin Simmons threw for 257 yards and one touchdown, continually finding receiver Levi Falck (11 catches, 140 yards) open against top K-State cornerback Duke Shelley.
K-State’s performance was best summed up on the opening play of the fourth quarter. K-State had just converted a fourth-down attempt and decided to be aggressive on first down with South Dakota up 24-12. Thompson dropped back in the pocket and lofted a well-thrown ball to Dalton Schoen, who was open deep up the left side. But he bobbled the pass and South Dakota defensive back Phillip Powell came up with an interception.
It looked like South Dakota was going to seize control.
There’s no sugar-coating it — K-State was awful bad up to that point.
The Wildcats entered the season expecting to have an advantage over just about every team they went up against at offensive line, yet they were unable to get much of anything going against the Coyotes on the ground.
Barnes was swarmed in the backfield seemingly every time he touched the ball, a sign that South Dakota’s defensive line was winning the battle up front. Barnes was only able to gain 18 yards on his first 10 touches. Making matters worse: he fumbled three times, losing two.
It was obvious Coleman expected more, because he went to Barnes on his first four play calls. But they resulted in negative yardage and a turnover.
Thompson started the game at quarterback and made up for those early struggles by leading the Wildcats into scoring range on his third series, but K-State missed out on a touchdown when tight end Nick Lenners failed to secure an easily catchable pass in the end zone.
In a sign of things to come, the Wildcats turned to Blake Lynch for a field goal. The sophomore kicker from Goddard was K-State’s MVP before halftime. He impressed in his first start by scoring K-State’s first 12 points on field goals of 22, 24, 38 and 44 yards.
The Coyotes led 24-12 at halftime and it was anything but a fluke. They were the better team.
K-State’s only truly impressive plays — including a 94-yard punt return by Duke Shelley and an interception by Eli Walker – were negated by penalties.
It was a very uncharacteristic half of football. K-State lost two turnovers, which led to 10 points for South Dakota, and committed seven penalties for 65.
Things changed in the fourth quarter when Zuber found a way to make two electrifying plays. For that reason, they enter next week’s much-anticipated game against Mississippi State coming off a victory instead of a loss.