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By D. Scott Fritchen
MANHATTAN, Kan. – On a night that Kansas State celebrated its three Big 12 Conference title teams, the 16th-ranked Wildcats turned the page on their 2022 league championship with an emphatic 45-0 season-opening win over Southeast Missouri in front of a sellout crowd on a sizzling Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Will Howard threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns, DJ Giddens rushed for 128 yards, and RJ Garcia II and Ben Sinnott each had 100-yard receiving performances, as the Wildcats dominated their first-ever meeting against the Redhawks, who entered ranked No. 11 in the FCS media poll.
“Coach (Chris) Klieman said after the game we only get 12 guaranteed opportunities,” Howard said. “Whether we’re playing Alabama or SEMO, it doesn’t matter. We have to take care of business, and that’s what we did. We can’t take anybody lightly. SEMO is a good football team.”
K-State marched to 588 total yards, its fifth-most offensive yards in history and most since a school-record 658 yards against North Texas in 2005. The Wildcats scored on five of their first six possessions and kept the Redhawks out of end zone, posting its most dominant shutout win since a 52-0 rout of Bowling Green in 2019.
K-State outrushed SEMO, 228-6, holding an opponent to its fewest rushing yards since allowing Texas A&M -13 during a game in 2009. The Wildcats posted 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks of SEMO quarterback Paxton DeLaurent. It wasn’t until midway through the third quarter that SEMO reached 200 total yards.
“A shutout is so big,” K-State linebacker Daniel Green said. “That’s what you want. That was our mindset. It was a really good first game.”
It wasn’t until midway through the third quarter that the Wildcats booted a field goal or punted the football, and by then all that was left to question was whether true freshman quarterback Avery Johnson would join the fun.
Johnson ended his first-ever drive at K-State with a four-yard touchdown run with 14 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game, capping an 8-play, 79-yard drive.
“He was under control and in command,” Klieman said. “He’s really, really fast, and I think you guys can tell that. He’s got great, great speed.”
While Johnson sent the student section into a frenzy, K-State sizzled from start to finish amid 100-degree temperatures that did little to slow down the Wildcats, who sent battalions of players onto the field and left nothing to question.
“There’s nothing better than game reps because there are 52,000 people here and the lights are the brightest and everybody’s eyes are on you, which is fun,” Klieman said. “We played 77 players, and it’s awesome.”
The Wildcats were pretty awesome from the start.
Howard threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for a score, and made an 8-yard touchdown reception in a dominant first half in which the Wildcats rolled to a 35-0 lead behind a lights-out offense and a defense that clamped down on the Redhawks on nearly every possession.
Howard fired a 33-yard touchdown pass to Ole Miss transfer Jadon Jackson, he and found Garcia II for a 37-yard score while also tucking the ball and racing around the left side 1 yard for another score, as the Wildcats raced to a 21-0 lead after 1 ½ quarters.
“We did a lot of good things,” said Howard, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns and one interception, while he rushed for another score in his first start in a season opener. “It’s never going to be perfect, but the good thing is there’s a lot to learn from and a lot of teaching moments we can take into the future.”
K-State’s crowd of 52,066 marked its largest attendance in a game since 2017 and the largest home-opening crowd in eight years. Fans roared as they witnessed the first K-State touchdown from Treshaun Ward from 3 yards out for a 28-0 advantage before a 43-yard scamper by DJ Giddens highlighted a drive that offensive coordinator Collin Klein capped with some razzle dazzle.
Facing first-and-goal at the 8-yard line, Howard pitched the ball to Ward then darted toward the Redhawks sideline. Ward wound back and threw the ball back to Howard, who caught the ball in the flat and raced down the sideline and into the end zone with 38 seconds left for a 35-0 score, adding a final statement to a near-perfect first half.
“We’d practiced it the whole week,” Ward said, chuckling. “I had to make it happen. That was a surreal moment to throw a touchdown in your college career when you’re a running back.”
Garcia II had five catches for 119 yards and one touchdown and Sinnott had five catches for 100 yards. Phillip Brooks had six catches for 40 yards. In all, K-State quarterbacks found eight different pass catchers during the contest.
“I was excited to be out there playing with my guys and playing football against somebody other than my teammates,” said Garcia II, whose performance included receptions of 44 and 37 yards. “It’s a big confidence booster for me. My coaches believe in me and put a great game plan in. We all executed.”
Meanwhile, fans got a chance to see the rushing tandem of Giddens and Ward in action. Giddens, a sophomore, had 15 carries for 128 yards, spinning and churning his way through would-be tacklers, while elusive Ward made his yards behind brilliant speed and ankle-breaking moves in the open field. Ward, a senior Florida State transfer, had 11 carries for 56 yards and one touchdown.
“There were a whole bunch of opportunities for big plays, and we just have to execute,” Giddens said. “I’m a lot more comfortable. It took me a couple plays to get hit a couple times and then I fell into a zone. This is going to be deadly, the one-two (punch), it’s going to be deadly.”
Shortly after Chris Tennant kicked a 51-yard field goal to make it 38-0, the Wildcats began inserting the remainder of their depth chart against the Redhawks, who were facing their second ranked Power 5 opponent in program history.
Meanwhile, on a night when K-State honored its Big 12 title teams, the Wildcats had a chance for an all-out celebration following its dominant win.
“Hopefully, we can do that again,” Howard said, “and have the same ceremony next year.”