Big Second Half Lifts Cats to 25-24 Win at Texas Tech

LUBBOCK, Texas – Kansas State used a fourth-quarter touchdown reception by running back Deuce Vaughn to take a 25-24 lead and recorded back-to-back sacks on Texas Tech quarterback Henry Colombi in the final 2 minutes to capture its first Big 12 Conference victory of the season in sizzling style before a stunned crowd at Jones AT&T Stadium.

K-State, 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the Big 12, trailed 24-10 at halftime and appeared to be on the ropes after the Red Raiders took a commanding 14-0 lead less than 4 minutes into the game. But K-State fought back to claim its sixth straight win in the series with a statement performance that put to bed a frustrating start to its league season. Texas Tech entered seeking to reach bowl eligibility its fastest in a season since 2013 but fell to 5-3 and 2-3.

“We came in at halftime and we didn’t flinch or bat an eye,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “We felt like we were the better team and had a chance to win the game. We just had to make some plays. It was a much-needed victory as we all know. We needed to find a way to go on the road and get a win. I’m happy for the guys. We can enjoy it today.”

Skylar Thompson completed 24 of 30 passes for 296 yards and 1 touchdown, and his scoring toss came on a 22-yard pass to Vaughn that proved to be the game winner with 6 minutes, 9 seconds left, capping a dramatic comeback dampened by a season-high 12 penalties and a few long plays early by the Red Raiders.

“Both sides of the ball we were trying to get out of own way,” Klieman said. “There were too many penalties, and the crowd was a little bit of a factor. Discipline penalties you can’t have. Defensively, just a couple of blown assignments. You can’t do those things and be successful. We’re not a team that can give teams 10 0r 15 points and we did that again today.”

The Wildcats, who had suffered through a mound of frustration caused by unforced errors against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State, didn’t play a perfect game, but they grabbed the momentum in the second half and shutout the Colombi and the Red Raiders in the fourth quarter when they most needed to make stops.

“We started to play good team defense,” Klieman said, “which is what you have to do.”

Colombi went 10 of 17 for 148 yards with 1 interception, and the Red Raiders, who entered the game leading the FBS with 17 plays from scrimmage longer than 40 yards, tried to knockout the Wildcats early with their big-play capabilities. They had rushes of 30 and 45 yards and passes of 40 and 48 yards in the first half.

However, the Wildcats wouldn’t be stopped, clawed their way back, and took their first lead in 10 quarters in highlight style.

“I told the guys afterward our preparation was exceptional, and it’s not going to guarantee victory, but our preparation was really good,” Klieman said. “The guys held each other accountable, and it was a team win — offense, defense and special teams all had a hand in the victory.”

Thompson led the Wildcats 44 yards in eight plays before he unleashed arguably his prettiest pass of the game. Thompson carried out a play-action fake and lobbed a 22-yard pass to Vaughn, who made an over-the-shoulder catch about five steps in front of linebacker Riko Jeffers and ran the final five yards into the end zone with 6:09 to give the Wildcats a 25-24 a lead of the game.

Although the Wildcats failed on their 2-point conversion, meaning Texas Tech could win the game with a field goal, the Red Raiders came up empty on their final two drives, both of which ended with unsuccessful fourth-down conversions.

Thompson, who became the first player in school history to reach 6,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a career, was animated after the game.

“Everybody was locked in, and everybody was in it for each other,” said Thompson, who had a career-high 80% completion percentage. “It’s a group effort. That’s what’s going to make us successful. We’ve got to keep building. We can never be satisfied. This is a great feeling when everybody contributes, and everyone puts in the work during the week, and we see the hard work pay off.

“We can’t shy away. We have to stay hungry. Let’s keep fighting.”

K-State’s comeback began in the third quarter, which hadn’t been a kind quarter for the Wildcats. K-State had scored just 17 points in the third quarter this season — it managed 2 touchdowns and 1 field goal in six games — but that changed when Felix Anudike-Uzomah tackled running back SaRodorick Thompson in the end zone for a safety after a brilliant 63-yard punt by Ty Zentner that pinned the Red Raiders deep. It marked the first time since 2005 that K-State recorded a safety by a tackle.

“The safety made it 24-12 and gave us some life,” Klieman said, “and we were able to make some plays.”

The special teams showed up again and offense answered as well.

Following the safety, Malik Knowles returned the free kick 28 yards. Then Thompson completed a 32-yard pass to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe across the middle, and Vaughn caught a short pass and was forced out of bounds at the 11 after a 26-yard gain. Vaughn’s 1-yard run four plays later brought the Wildcats to within 24-19.

Vaughn led K-State with seven catches for 68 yards and 1 touchdown. He became the fastest in school history to reach 2,000 all-purpose yards in a career. He reached the mark in just 17 games. Tyler Lockett reached the milestone in 18 games and Darren Sproles in 19.

Phillip Brooks added five catches for 37 yards, Landry Weber had three catches for 49 yards, and Kade Warner had two catches for 35 yards. In all, Thompson completed passes to 11 different pass-catching targets.

“In the second half, talking with offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, he told me throughout the week that he thought we could throw the ball against these guys, and we were trying to run it a little bit,” Klieman said. “I said, ‘Courtney, let’s put it in Skylar’s hands, spread it out, and let’s throw it around.’ I didn’t think they could cover us. We talked to Skylar and the receivers and said, ‘The game is going to you guys.’”

Riding with momentum, K-State was 19 yards from taking the lead on its next drive before an unforced error halted a 9-play, 61-yard effort. Facing third-and-5 at the Texas Tech 26-yard line, tight end Nick Lenners caught a 7-yard pass and attempted to extend the ball after the catch, but Texas Tech linebacker Colin Schooler forced Lenners to fumble, and Schooler recovered the ball at the 19.

K-State regrouped and bounced back with the Thompson-to-Vaughn heroics.

The Wildcats found a way to win.

The offense spent the week focused on establishing a running game while the defense concentrated on fundamentals, simplifying the 3-3-5 defense to play faster, and regaining confidence after the previous three opposing quarterbacks picked apart the unit. Oklahoma State (481 total yards), Oklahoma (392) and Iowa State (418) had each put up solid yardage against the Wildcats.

K-State held a Texas Tech offense that averaged 455.1 total yards this season to a season-low 317 yards. Take away the four plays of 30-plus yards and the Wildcats allowed an average of 3.03 yards on the other 52 plays.

One week after Iowa State’s Breece Hall rushed for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, the Red Raiders needed just two plays — a 30-yard rush by Kaylon Geiger and a 45-yard rush by Erik Ezukanma — to reach the end zone just 30 seconds into the game.

Just when the Wildcats’ defense hoped to regroup from their gut punch, a Knowles’ fumble on the ensuing kickoff return put the Red Raiders back in business. They made K-State pay with a short 23-yard drive capped by a 1-yard rush by Thompson. That gave Texas Tech a 14-0 lead less than 4 minutes into the contest.

It appeared K-State could be in trouble on its very first possession when Thompson fell while attempting a handoff and walked with a noticeable limp. Thompson walked it off and the Wildcats got down to business on their second drive.

That’s when Thompson engineered the second-longest touchdown drive in school history — a drive that consumed an amazing 10:04. The 14-play, 78-yard drive ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Vaughn.

But Texas Tech used another long play to key a touchdown of its own, as Colombi hit wide receiver Myles Price with a 40-yard pass and Thompson rumbled 4 yards into the end zone for a 21-7 advantage.

Although K-State created a takeaway — its second takeaway in the Big 12 season — the Wildcats failed to fully capitalize. K-State safety Russ Yeast sparked the Wildcats when he intercepted Colombi and returned the ball 10 yards to the Texas Tech 35-yard line, but the Wildcats had to settle for a Taiten Winkel 24-yard field goal to cut it to 21-10.

Whereas Texas Tech needed fewer than seven plays to score its first two touchdowns, the Red Raiders grinded out a pair of 10-play drives for their final two scores of the first half. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they stiffened when they needed it the most and the Red Raiders saw their 10-play, 66-yard drive result in a 27-yard field goal from Jonathan Garibay on the final play before halftime.

Then Wildcats came out of the locker room and put together their signature win so far in 2021. It was K-State’s first Big 12 victory since a 55-14 win over Kansas on October 24, 2020.

“I hope that the way we won the game — we were down two scores a couple of weeks in a row, but we were found a way to win today — gives the guys some confidence,” Klieman said. “If we can just sustain it for four quarters, think what we can do the rest of the season.”