It’s been nearly 24 hours since Kansas State defeated West Virginia 26-20 at Milan Puskar Stadium on Thursday.
Here are three lingering thoughts on the game:
1. Jake Waters played well and looked healthy.
K-State’s quarterback threw for a career-high 400 yards against West Virginia and was more active (12 carries) in the running game (though not more effective) than he has been in recent weeks.
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When I asked K-State receiver Curry Sexton what he saw differently from Waters, Sexton said it was a simple matter of Waters recovering from a nagging injury to his right shoulder.
“I think he is just healthier,” Sexton said. “He got in a rhythm and he felt good. They were trying to man us up a lot, and he thrives in situations like that. He was just playing the way he is capable of playing.”
Waters has tried his best to downplay his ailment, saying that he feels good after every game. But he has been playing hurt since the Oklahoma game, and he has been running the ball less and less.
“I’m not going to downplay it at all,” senior center B.J. Finney said. “Jake has been doing a great job for us. He is banged up like a lot of guys, but he is putting it all on the line and we are trying to win games. Fortunately we keep finding a way.”
The Wildcats put a lot on Waters’ shoulders Thursday, asking him to mask a miserable rushing effort with his arm. Late in the game, instead of trying to burn clock with rushes, Bill Snyder told Waters to pick up first downs through the air. Knowing every incomplete miss would stop the clock, Waters led K-State down field and set up a game-clinching field goal.
That, along with his improving health, will boost his confidence moving forward.
“It’s not nerve wracking at all,” Waters said of that important drive. “That is why you play, to go out there and have them call your number. I went out there like any other drive, just knowing I had to make plays and throws. I did it and I did my job and we ended up winning.
“I felt pretty good in warm-ups and throwing the ball. I knew if I made good throws we would have success.”
2. K-State’s running game is broken.
Sure, TCU is tough against the run and played with a lead. Yes, West Virginia occasionally put nine defenders in the box and designed its game plan around stopping K-State’s running game. There are reasonable explanations why the Wildcats haven’t been able to move the ball on the ground in their last two games.
Still, one rushing yard isn’t going to cut it.
K-State failed miserably trying to run the ball on short-yardage situations against the Mountaineers, continually getting stuffed on third-and-one, and once on a series of plays at the goal line. A team can live with minor rushing yards when it throws for 400, but it still needs to be able to pick up a yard on the ground when it absolutely needs to.
The ineffective running game led to six field goal attempts from Matthew McCrane.
“The frustrating part is when we move the ball, we don’t finish,” Waters said. “That’s on me to get us into better plays. I messed up on that tonight. I went the wrong way on a couple plays. I could have done something better on a couple sneaks and I would have gotten in. We will learn from it and get better.”
Waters could have done more in certain situations, but the blame here is universal. The offensive line didn’t win the line of scrimmage, Charles Jones and DeMarcus Robinson did nothing with the ball in their hands and the offensive coaching staff failed to call creative plays that could get their skill players into space.
Finding success on the ground against Kansas next week should be a top priority before K-State embarks on a difficult season-finale at Baylor.
3. Tyler Lockett outshined Kevin White.
Before Lockett caught a punt and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown against West Virginia, one thought ran through his mind.
“Goal,” Lockett said.
It was a terrible punt, kicked to the right side of the field, where K-State was planning to setup a return. All Lockett needed was to run fast and hope for two good blocks and he knew he was going to reach the end zone.
Sure enough, he scored a touchdown (the easiest return of his life, he said) seconds later.
“It was set up perfectly,” Lockett said. “The biggest thing was, just catch the ball. All 10 players made great plays and made great blocks. That was the side we were returning to anyway. That was a big play going into halftime.”
It was. But Lockett made plenty of big plays Thursday, catching 10 passes for 196 yards on a night he absolutely had to get open. Dana Holgorsen told his defense to blitz, put pressure on Waters and stop K-State’s run game. That left Lockett facing man coverage, and he beat his defender time and again.
He was the best receiver on the field, outshining West Virginia’s NFL prospect Kevin White, who had seven catches for 63 yards and a score.
The big game gave Lockett his second 1,000-yard season with the Wildcats, joining him with Quincy Morgan as the only two players to accomplish the feat.
“He is just so good,” Sexton said of Lockett. “He makes the game of football look easy. He is one of the best college football players there is right now.”