The Kansas State football team is off to bigger and better things.
After closing out the regular season with a 47-27 victory over rival Kansas, the Wildcats will now turn their focus to one of the most meaningful games they have played in two decades. K-State (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) has earned a berth in the Big 12 championship game against undefeated TCU.
Win or lose, the Wildcats are also now on track to receive an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.
That is kind of a big deal. K-State has not played in a Big 12 championship game since 2003, and it hasn’t participated in a major bowl since 2012, the last time it won a conference title (when there was no league championship game).
The Wildcats have exciting things to look forward to thanks to a comfortable win over the Jayhawks (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) on a rainy Saturday evening at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. K-State took care of business in a game it absolutely had to win. Now it will be rewarded.
KU will wait to learn its bowl destination now that its regular season has drawn to a close.
Here are some takeaways on the action:
Big plays were the difference in this game
For the first time in a long while, the Sunflower Showdown felt like an evenly matched game.
Both teams were able to sustain long drives and find the end zone. Both teams came up with impressive stops on defense. Both teams fought hard until the bitter end.
Maybe this can turn into a more competitive football rivalry with Lance Leipold and Chris Klieman as the head coaches.
That being said, the Wildcats held a significant advantage over the Jayhawks in one of the most important areas of the game. They didn’t make any bone-headed mistakes. That proved to be the difference on Saturday, because KU shot itself in the foot on more than a few occasions.
Perhaps the biggest KU blunder of the night came in the early going when O.J. Burroughs mishandled a punt near his own goal line and K-State recovered the loose ball to set up an easy touchdown run for senior receiver Malik Knowles. Instead of having a chance to take the lead on their first drive of the game, the Jayhawks were staring at a 7-0 deficit.
Later, an illegal block on a kickoff return set the Jayhawks up with awful field position, and that mistake led to a holding penalty in the end zone. Just like that, K-State was credited with a safety.
Kansas also allowed a Ty Zentner punt to roll 72 yards in the second quarter, surrendered an 80-yard pass from Will Howard to Deuce Vaughn on third-and-long and lost a fumble at midfield when it had an opportunity to cut into a one-score deficit.
Mason Fairchild also dropped an important two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter that would have trimmed the score to eight points.
Every time the Jayhawks had a chance to make things truly interesting, the Wildcats hit them with a stiff arm.
K-State handled clutch situations much better than KU. That was one of the main reasons why the Wildcats won and remain a few steps ahead of the Jayhawks as a football program.
Malik Knowles is a gifted receiver ... and a runner
Knowles is listed as a receiver on the K-State football roster, which makes sense as he leads the Wildcats in every major statistical category as a pass-catcher. But he could also be a running back.
Every time the Wildcats hand the ball to Knowles in the backfield good things seem to happen.
Knowles rushed the ball three times for 38 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Earlier this season, he scored on an end-around run for a long touchdown. The combination of his speed and Deuce Vaughn’s abilities as a lead blocker have been almost impossible for defenses to stop.
With rain coming down most of the game, it made sense to give the ball to playmakers without risking a bad pass. Knowles took advantage with several big plays. This was likely Knowles’ final home game with the Wildcats. Unless he decides to return as a “super-senior,” he went out with a bang.
Easy day for Will Howard
The K-State quarterback didn’t have to do much in this game.
He completed 11 of 21 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, but he didn’t carry the team on his back to amass those statistics.
Heck, he didn’t even complete a pass in the second half.
Most of his passing yardage came on two plays. He threw a pass over the middle to Vaughn in the second quarter, and Vaughn cut up field for an 80-yard gain. Howard also lobbed a pass to tight end Sammy Wheeler for a 42-yard touchdown in the first quarter in which there wasn’t a KU defender in the neighborhood.
Otherwise, he mostly got the ball to his playmakers and watched them do exciting things. It was a stress-free day for Howard, with K-State rushing for 230 yards on 42 attempts.
Not the best day for K-State’s offensive line
There wasn’t all that much to criticize about the Wildcats in this one. But they were shaky at times at the line of scrimmage.
KU had defenders in the backfield more often than most would have expected, and the Jayhawks put a decent amount of pressure on Howard. They hurried him three times and sacked him twice. Those havoc plays led to a pair of fumbles, one of which KU jumped on for a turnover at midfield.
K-State also struggled to punch the ball in for a touchdown near the goal line in the third quarter and had to get Vaughn on the perimeter to score a touchdown.
The Wildcats did rush for 230 yards, so it wasn’t all bad. But those issues could have been more costly against a stronger opponent.
Another standout day for Ty Zentner
Here’s a stat you don’t see every day.
Senior special-teams maven Ty Zentner (who handles field goals, kickoffs and punts for the Wildcats) averaged 62.7 yards per punt on Saturday. His longest one of the day went for 72 yards and completely flipped the field, pinning the Jayhawks near their own goal line.
Zentner also connected on his lone field-goal attempt of 27 yards.
More Big 12 special teams player-of-the-week honors may be in his future.