With Kansas State backed up at its own 5-yard line midway through the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 24-17 victory over TCU at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, the odds of Skylar Thompson leading a game-altering drive seemed rather slim.
The Wildcats were having trouble moving the ball against the Horned Frogs and they hadn’t sniffed the red zone since the beginning of the second half. Offense hasn’t been this team’s forte in Big 12 games. Realizing that, K-State coach Chris Klieman had a brief conversation with offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham about playing it safe with the score tied and taking “our chances,” even if it meant punting after three short runs.
Then he said something else: “Let’s be aggressive.”
Good call. K-State did exactly that and came out swinging with a misdirection pass in the flats to top receiver Malik Knowles, who caught the ball in space but tripped himself up and only gained 5 yards. Then the Wildcats cleverly called for a quarterback draw as TCU coach Gary Patterson dialed up a zone blitz, leaving the middle of the field void of defenders. Thompson dropped back as if he meant to attempt a pass and then rumbled for a 61-yard gain.
“I knew I was going to run the ball,” Thompson said. “I liked it. I thought that going into this game, and Coach Messingham kind of told me, that we will probably call my number more today. I was ready for it. I don’t care if I am throwing the ball or running the ball or handing it off. Whatever it takes for our team to win I’m down for it.”
Just like that, the Wildcats were in business. They also looked more confident than ever.
The same unit that mustered just 13 points against Oklahoma State and only 12 points against Baylor flexed its muscles in the clutch of this game. K-State ran nine more plays during that decisive drive, with Thompson eventually reaching pay dirt on a 3-yard scamper with 2 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.
The Wildcats posted a go-ahead touchdown and held on to win their first conference game under Klieman to improve to 4-2 (1-2 Big 12) and to win their first game of any kind in more than a month.
“It’s huge,” Thompson said. “We had a great start to the season and hit a bump in the road. That bye week was an opportunity for us as a team. Are we going to buckle down here and fight and not let this first quarter of the season define our season? Or are we going to give up and give into what we faced the last two weeks? This team came together harder than ever. We had a great two weeks of practice and nobody flinched. We knew we were one or two plays away from getting things going.”
One aggressive play, which turned into a game-winning drive, made all the difference.
“I would tell you it came down to one play call,” Patterson said. “A lot of other things, but it came down to one call. That (61-yard quarterback draw) was the call. We ran a zone blitz too shallow. He made a check-down draw and it was a good call by him. That call had been a good call for us all day.”
The Wildcats looked like a different team after Thompson broke free for his longest run of the season.
K-State’s offense hasn’t had many explosive plays against power-conference foes this year, but that changed against TCU. The Wildcats still have plenty of improvements to make, as they amassed only 266 total yards on Saturday. The Horned Frogs, by comparison, had 366 yards.
But K-State’s best plays were very positive. James Gilbert had an 11-yard run, Malik Knowles caught a pass for 33 yards, Dalton Schoen gained 25 yards on a crossing pattern and Wykeen Gill and Nick Lenners both caught touchdown passes of 20-plus yards.
That was a welcome change for Klieman’s team. He saw enough positives to gamble and go for it on fourth-and-1 from the TCU 20. The safe play was to kick the field goal and take a 20-17 lead. A turnover on downs could have led to a loss. But the Wildcats kept pushing for a touchdown and moved the chains on a Thompson scramble.
“It was good stuff,” Klieman said. “It was not a question in our mind that we were going for that on fourth down, because I didn’t want to have a three-point lead. We wanted to have a seven-point lead.”
The Wildcats will need to perform at an even higher level if they hope to keep up with undefeated Oklahoma and its high-octane offense next week. But the Wildcats gave themselves reason to hope moving forward with a clutch drive against the Horned Frogs.
For the first time in weeks, K-State is celebrating a victory thanks to an offense that made a few big plays.