MANHATTAN, Kansas – When Ty Zentner‘s opening kick sailed through the back of the end zone on Saturday morning, K-State pulled off the upset against an opponent they have battled since March.
But it was the opponent that arrived at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday that caused problems for the Wildcats in a 35-31 loss to Arkansas State.
Will Jones II blocked the first punt of the game and Deuce Vaughn scored the first touchdown of his K-State career, but a locked in Arkansas State passing attack doomed the Wildcats in the season opener.
It marks the first season-opening defeat in Manhattan for K-State since a loss to North Dakota State in 2013, when Chris Klieman was on the Bison sideline as a defensive coordinator.
“I said to the guys in the locker room, this is the kind of adversity we’re going to face all year,” Klieman said. “We were down to our third team center. I thought Hayden Gillum did a great job. Down to our third team safety, I thought Ryan Henington did a great job. But that being said, it’s frustrating when you take a loss.”
Playing their first game after an offseason dominated by COVID-19 precautions, K-State hosted socially distanced fans at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday afternoon for their only non-conference game of 2020.
With temperature checks at the gate, social distancing in the stands and masks throughout the stadium, it was a season opener unlike any other in Manhattan.
“I was nervous up till 4:30- 5:00 on Friday that we would even be playing this game,” Klieman said. “I was just so excited for the guys. There’s been a lot of stress and anxiety on the guys about whether we’re going to play or not.”
It wasn’t perfect, but it was unmistakably college football.
In their latest season opener since 1992, K-State out-possessed Arkansas State by almost nine minutes but had no answer for receiver Jonathan Adams Jr. and a Red Wolves defense that caused problems in the trenches.
Vaughn, a true freshman, racked up 71 all-purpose yards in his first college game and flashed the potential to be a four-year force in the K-State backfield.
His 24-yard reception helped get the Wildcats in business in the second quarter, before Vaughn punched it in from three yards out for the first touchdown of his college career.
“It is honestly surreal. Last night I went to bed dreaming about scoring my first touchdown in Bill Snyder Family Stadium and playing for the Wildcats,” Vaughn said. “Whenever I got the opportunity and I hit it and I got in the end zone, I didn’t know what to think. I was so excited and I look forward to doing it over and over again.”
Harry Trotter added another rushing touchdown on the afternoon for K-State.
It took only five plays on Saturday for Jones II to put his stamp on the 2020 season, when the freshman got a jump off the edge and blocked the first punt of the game for the Wildcats.
It was the first blocked punt of his career, but Jones II – who appeared in four games last season while retaining his redshirt – wasn’t done making an impact against Arkansas State.
Later in the quarter, he picked off Red Wolves quarterback Logan Bonner, setting up the Wildcats at midfield before Vaughn put K-State up 14-7.
It was a lead the Wildcats would protect until the fourth quarter.
Even after falling behind, K-State scored 10 straight points to retake a 31-28 lead late in the game following a 35-yard field goal by Blake Lynch.
The Red Wolves responded with a 65-yard drive inside the game’s final two minutes.
Bonner threw for 204 yards to lead Arkansas State on the afternoon, but it was Layne Hatcher who found Adams Jr. for the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds to go in Manhattan.
“This week off should give us a couple guys back and a couple guys [a chance] to get their body’s right. We will get prepared for Big 12 play,” Justin Hughes said.
The Wildcats had a few shots at the endzone in the final seconds, but Skylar Thompson couldn’t write a heroic ending to an afternoon when he finished with 259 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns.
“I thought our guys stepped up and did a great job and kept fighting, that’s what it’s about,” Thompson said. “Things didn’t go our way today, but sometimes that’s part of it. That’s just part of life. You just keep fighting. That’s my approach and that’s this team’s approach, and we are not giving up. We are not going to let this team define us and how this season is going to go.”
Kansas State will return to action in two weeks when the Wildcats travel to Norman, where they will face No. 5 Oklahoma in the Big 12 opener for both teams. It will be the first matchup between the schools since K-State beat the Sooners 48-41 in Manhattan last season.
The Wildcats return to Manhattan on Oct. 3 for a Big 12 matchup with Texas Tech.