Kansas State entered its game Saturday against Texas-El Paso as a near four-touchdown favorite, so the Wildcats were expected to win with ease at Snyder Family Stadium.
Still, there was no shortchanging their 58-28 victory.
No. 25 K-State did everything right against UTEP, a Conference USA team that, while overmatched, entered the game with the nation’s seventh-best rushing attack and held a fourth-quarter lead on Texas Tech three weeks ago. The Wildcats were dominant on defense, strong on special teams and good enough on offense.
The result was a bench-clearing victory in front of 52,899 fans.
“We have a great team and we see what we can accomplish as long as all of us are on the same page with our goals,” senior receiver Tyler Lockett said. “Out defense has been playing lights-out. Once the offense gets in rhythm, the way special teams is playing right now, I want to see what it’s like when all of us play a great game.”
K-State was close Saturday. The Wildcats built a 58-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. If not for a handful of penalties and some breakdowns from backups, their victory margin would have been wider.
They were best on defense, holding UTEP to 30 yards and one first down in the opening half while building a 31-0 lead. They shut down Miners running back Aaron Jones, who averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his first three games, holding him to 47 yards in 19 attempts.
“Kansas State’s defense is one of the best run defenses that I have seen in a long time,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said. “And they were very effective stopping the run. They forced us to do some things that were a little out of our comfort zone.”
K-State made the Miners uncomfortable by continually winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, blowing past UTEP blockers for one sack and six tackles for loss.
“I thought we were great on defense,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said.
The Wildcats overwhelmed the Miners early, forcing them without a first down on their first six drives.
“We just have to come out with the mind-set that we want to win and we are going to win,” safety Travis Green said. “Three-and-out every time. That’s a good ball team. They run the ball hard. We went hard at them. That’s what we had to do.”
As good as K-State looked on defense, it was also superb on special teams. It opened the game by blocking UTEP’s first punt and then blocked another, only to have it called back by a bizarre ruling that involved an illegally advanced fumble and an inadvertent whistle. It took the officiating crew nearly 12 minutes to resolve on replay.
Snyder was noticeably angry about the do-over, mostly because he never received a satisfactory explanation why it occurred.
“I still don’t understand it,” Snyder said. “… I was clueless in what they were trying to tell me. Whatever the ruling was, it just didn’t seem to be appropriate in my way of thinking. Apparently there is a rule to that effect I am totally unaware of.”
Not that it mattered. When K-State wasn’t blocking punts, Lockett was returning them for huge yardage. On top of four catches for 84 yards, he starred on special teams, piling up 143 return yards on five punts and scoring his first punt return touchdown on a 58-yard weaving run in the second quarter. He also took a second return into the end zone, but it was nullified by holding.
After not returning a kick or punt in his first two games, Lockett has regained his return swagger.
“You had to give credit to the other 10 guys out there, because they held up their guys,” Lockett said. “I caught the ball and there wasn’t anybody within 20 yards of me. They did their part. I did my part. I am starting to get comfortable back there.”
With its defense and special teams playing at high levels, K-State, 3-1, didn’t need to do much on offense. But it delivered in that area, too, amassing 451 yards. Running back Charles Jones led the way with 76 rushing yards and three touchdowns, but DeMarcus Robinson also had 56 yards and a touchdown. Jake Waters completed 10 of 15 passes for 209 yards and a score, while adding a rushing touchdown.
Together, they did enough to take the fourth quarter off against UTEP, 2-2.
It was exactly what they wanted a week after an emotional loss to Auburn.
“We had a new mentality,” left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “Our mentality was to be strong. After the Auburn game we got challenged. That was one of our things. We wanted to be physical this game, and we were.”