Skylar Thompson was throwing the ball like a pro, Courtney Messingham was calling creative plays that caught Texas by surprise and the Kansas State Wildcats were flexing their muscles in front of 97,833 fans.
Everything that could go right for the K-State football team did go right in the early going of its game against the Longhorns on Saturday at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium.
When the first quarter came to an end and the No. 20 Wildcats held a 14-0 lead they seemed on their way to their first road victory over the Longhorns in eight years and a win that would keep them in the mix for a conference championship.
Then everything changed.
K-State’s early 14-0 advantage morphed into a 24-14 deficit and Texas made enough plays late to grab a 27-24 victory on a walk-off field goal from Cameron Dicker.
This will go down as a missed opportunity for K-State.
“It hurts a lot, especially in a game where you feel like you were probably the better team and played better,” senior K-State receiver Dalton Schoen. “We just didn’t ultimately make enough plays to win the game. That just hurts to go down like that.”
That sentiment was echoed throughout the K-State locker room Saturday evening. The Wildcats (6-3, 3-3 Big 12) felt like they lost this game more than the Longhorns (6-3, 4-2) won it.
The main reason why: missed opportunities on offense.
K-State found the end zone on each of its first two drives but failed to do so again for the remainder of the game. The Wildcats crossed midfield five times against the Longhorns and only had 17 points to show for it. The Wildcats’ other touchdown came early in the fourth quarter on a 98-yard kickoff return from Joshua Youngblood moments after Texas appeared to take control with a touchdown run by Keaontay Ingram.
Much like they have all season, the Wildcats showed great resolve in a difficult situation and battled until the end. But they wouldn’t have needed to mount a gritty comeback had they sustained more drives in the middle of the game.
The magic that K-State displayed in the first quarter disappeared. So much so that it felt like there was an invisible barrier preventing the Wildcats from entering the red zone. They failed to move past the Texas 27 on their final seven drives.
In the first half, they gained 253 yards and held a 14-7 lead. In the second half, they mustered only 58 yards and fell behind while the Longhorns piled up 315.
There are many reasons why that happened. Though Skylar Thompson threw for a career high 253 yards, the Longhorns loaded defenders near the line of scrimmage and brought extra pressure on blitzes to discourage K-State from running the ball. And it worked. The Wildcats rushed for 51 yards on 26 attempts.
“They blitzed us unbelievably in the second quarter on, especially in the run game,” Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman said. “They were not going to sit there and allow Skylar time to throw it or for us to rush the football. And when we rushed the football as well as we did last week we anticipated pressure, but I thought they did a really good job of saying, ‘You’re not going to run the football because we’re going to overload the box all day long.”
K-State averaged 5.7 yards per play against that defensive approach, but it needed more with Texas gaining 7.3 yards per play.
Without a consistent rushing attack (Klieman’s bread and butter) every negative play seemed to put K-State’s offense behind the eight ball.
The Wildcats moved the ball effectively on just about all of their drives until they got to third down, but they were ineffective moving the chains, going 5 of 11.
“We lost a lot of rhythm and had a hard time stringing drives together,” Schoen said. “It seemed like we would clear midfield and then die out. We hurt ourselves a couple times by stalling at their 40. That is something we have got to get corrected. We have to string more drives together and score touchdowns.”
The rushing scores K-State piled up during recent wins over Kansas and Oklahoma were non existent in this game.
“We did well at times, but we have to get better at some things,” Thompson said. “That’s the main takeaway.”
Here’s what K-State did well early.
The Wildcats found all kinds of space for Malik Knowles by shifting him from the right side of the field into the backfield. The Longhorns didn’t adjust on defense as Knowles ran a short route in the flats, made a Texas safety miss and then beat everyone on the field to the end zone. Just like that, they had a 7-0 lead.
Then Thompson found Wykeen Gill on a 19-year route midway through the first quarter that gave the Wildcats a 14-0 lead.
But there were few other highlights on offense. K-State came close to scoring a late touchdown when Thompson found Schoen with a pass through traffic in the end zone, but he wasn’t able to hang on and make a difficult catch.
It was a play the Wildcats wish they had back and a missed opportunity in a game filled with them.