Vahe Gregorian

With Sunflower Showdown in rare spotlight, K-State seizes the day and KU squanders it

With both programs reinvigorated by dynamic coaching changes and each coming off improbable, exhilarating wins the week before, this day had the intriguing makings of a special moment in the Kansas-Kansas State football series, aka the Sunflower Showdown.

That’s why it was the first sellout at Memorial Stadium in a decade and why some were snared in gridlock coming off Interstate 70 and/or snarled in a ticket line at kickoff.

“I never so enjoyed an environment, atmosphere,” said Kansas coach Les Miles, the former Louisiana State coach who perhaps either exaggerated or was that consumed by the scene.

That’s why you hoped to see a baseline set for an ongoing future energy and relevance to this series that the past has seldom offered … what with the schools only having met once with both ranked (1995) and only twice even having gone to bowls in the same season (1995 and 2003).

On this gorgeous sun-splashed Saturday, you wanted to see some drama and a day to remember and something that could be sustained.

Instead, that mojo barely was sustained for a half.

The only showcase was for K-State, which muzzled KU 38-10 to become bowl eligible at 6-2 overall (3-2 Big 12) and beat KU for the 11th … straight … time.

In the process, coach Chris Klieman became the first Wildcats coach to win six of his first eight games since Z.G. Clevenger in 1916. True to the trait that’s gotten him here, after the game Klieman gave a nod to this “step in the right direction” but just about already was turning towards K-State’s game at Texas next week.

Meanwhile, Kansas simply squandered an opportunity for traction and credibility with so many fans who had filed in at a grinding pace to fill the stadium. While one-third or more might have been clad in purple, the rarely full student section was brimming until it started dispersing early in the fourth quarter.

The exposure, alas, exposed where Kansas is even as it improves: in that fickle state of rebuilding when the pendulum swings wildly back and forth, one step forward and two back until the ratio flips … if it’s on the right track.

After capturing the imagination of fans with the hiring of Miles and an early stomping of Boston College and a dizzying last-second win over Texas Tech the week before and the souped-up offense in the only two previous games since Brent Dearmon took over as coordinator, Kansas amassed all of 74 yards in the first half and was dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

The Wildcats thundered for 342 yards on the ground, including 129 by quarterback Skylar Thompson employing some deft option work that K-State hadn’t shown much before.

“We thought we had them outflanked,” Klieman said, understatedly adding, “We just saw an opportunity there.”

The emergence of Thompson, who was in knots much of last season, embodies a key element of Klieman’s success: He’s doing this with largely the same cast that went 5-7 a year ago but has been empowered and refocused by a needed change.

But the lopsided result also was a potent reminder that Klieman inherited an inherently different situation than Miles, the fifth head coach (counting Clint Bowen’s eight-game interim stint in 2014) since Mark Mangino was ousted in 2009.

“Miles To Go” is more than just a nice play on words for that ESPN+ documentary series, on which Miles incidentally said “Who is K-State?” after last week’s win over Tech; it speaks to the heart of the matter when it comes to a program that would have cause to celebrate merely a second Big 12 win in a season for the first time since 2008.

Kansas State had a foundation and recent history and resources on its side and needed a jump-start. Lugging a 6-82 conference record from 2009-2018, Kansas needed an overhaul.

KU already has flashed more glimmers of hope this season than it has in years, and recruiting suggests better days are ahead. For what it’s worth, Klieman said he told Miles he believes the Jayhawks will win more games this year.

But for all the noise the Wildcats were hearing in Manhattan this week about this being the year Kansas reversed the storyline in the series, for all the changes at both schools, K-State is past the initial growing pains while KU remains in their throes.

For all the static, one of K-State senior defensive tackle and co-captain Trey Dishon’s pre-game messages to the team was simple but spot-on: “We’re the ones in control,” he said.

It showed from the get-go on Saturday, with K-State clamping down KU to a three-and-out and then uncorking a tone-setting 10-play, 88-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead.

It was only 17-3 at halftime, in part because K-State had 78 yards in penalties in the first half. But the Wildcats did away with any lingering suspense with a nine-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half and make it 24-3.

Perhaps buoyed by Kansas’ rally from down 17-0 to beat Tech 37-34 last week, most fans hung around until early in the fourth quarter when Thompson scored his third touchdown of the day to make it 31-3. Kansas’ only touchdown was what might be called a token with one just 35 seconds left in the game.

Maybe as the years go by, Klieman and Miles will make this something it’s only fleetingly been before: a must-see event with meaningful ramifications for both schools.

But on this day, with all the hype and downright pageantry surrounding this game, K-State seized an opportunity that KU wasted.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.