Isaiah Zuber has made big plays before, but never like this.
What the junior receiver accomplished during Kansas State’s 27-24 victory over South Dakota on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium felt like a turning point in his football career, something that could lead to bigger and better things.
Check out these numbers: five catches for 68 yards, three returns for 108 yards and, most importantly, two touchdowns that sent the Wildcats from down and out against an unheralded FCS opponent to breathing easy with Mississippi State up next.
This was an ugly game for K-State, one it could have easily lost. But the final score was pretty enough for the Wildcats and their fans. They can all thank Zuber for that.
“I told you guys to watch out for Isaiah Zuber this weekend, and he balled out,” K-State running back Alex Barnes said. “He’s been playing like that all camp, all practice, doing everything that he did tonight. I’m really proud of him. He is the reason we won this game.”
There isn’t much hyperbole in that statement. Yes, Zuber had help from kicker Blake Lynch (four field goals in the first half), quarterback Skylar Thompson (61 passing yards, one touchdown) and a defense that held South Dakota scoreless in the second half. But none of that would have mattered if not for Zuber coming up with a pair of highlight-reel touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The first came on an 85-yard punt return with South Dakota leading 24-12. The Wildcats had scored all of their points on field goals and needed a jolt of momentum to get back in the game. Zuber delivered by zooming through a wall of would-be-tacklers on his way to the end zone. Then he snared a pass from Thompson in the back of the end zone with 7:21 left to give K-State its first lead since the first half.
“He was there,” Thompson said with a smile, “like always.”
The Wildcats led 27-24 following a two-point conversion, and they held on from there.
Say what you want about narrowly defeating a 21-point underdog. This game will certainly make even the most optimistic fans temper their preseason expectations. But there was one unmistakable positive to take away from this season-opener — K-State might have found a game-changing receiver.
That’s something the Wildcats sorely need this season with the departures of Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath. They have a solid possession receiver in Zach Reuter and a talented slot man in Dalton Schoen. But did they have a true No. 1 target? That seemed unclear. During his first two seasons in Manhattan, Zuber was little more than an average possession receiver. He caught 51 passes for 510 yards last season, delivering few jaw-dropping highlights other than his game-winning catch against Iowa State.
Getting more out of him this season was a must.
“We needed that out of Zuber,” Thompson said. “It was an up-and-down camp for him. He battled an injury, but he had a lot of confidence. He was coming over to me on the sideline saying, ‘Come on, let’s do this.’ When a receiver tells you that, it gives you a lot of confidence. ... I’m really excited for him. Now he just needs to keep it going from here and not plateau. That’s something he has got to bring every week, and he will. I have no doubt about that.”
Zuber seems poised to produce more games like this.
After leading K-State in catches last season, he put in extra work at practices during the offseason to become a more complete player and return man. That meant more time in the film room and extra nights studying the game. He has always been one of the fastest players on the roster; now he seems to have extra knowledge and experience to go with it.
He stepped up with the game on the line Saturday, and credited his teammates afterward.
It felt like a breakthrough. He thinks he’s just getting started.
“Stay tuned,” Zuber said. “That’s all I’m going to say. Stay tuned.”