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By D. Scott Fritchen
MANHATTAN, Kan. – No. 25 Kansas State knew it needed to rebound after a narrow loss at Texas last weekend. The Wildcats did so emphatically with a 59-25 stomping of Baylor that kept them in the hunt to defend their Big 12 Championship.
On a record-setting day for quarterback Will Howard, the Wildcats amassed at least 50 points for the first time in three years while reaching their biggest scoring total in series history against a Bears squad that suffered their worst loss of the season.
K-State, which improved to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big 12, is 6-0 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the first time since 2012. The Bears dropped to 3-7 and 2-5.
“A great performance by our guys today,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “Phenomenal performance under a difficult situation and circumstance as far as having a heart-wrenching loss last week, and to hear the outside noise of what you have to play for. We met with the guys on Monday and talked about we have a lot to play for. We have an opportunity to play for each other and to play in The Bill and to do something pretty special in finishing the story of the 2023 season.
“Our guys came to play today. I don’t know if anybody was worried or questioned — our guys came to play.”
K-State is in the thick of things in the league race with games at No. 16 Kansas and against Iowa State left to go in the regular season.
“The manner with which we’ve won at home just doesn’t happen typically,” Klieman said. “I did see that Texas Tech won (16-13 at Kansas). They’re a good football team, and Kansas is a good football team. I saw the score of Oklahoma State-UCF (a 45-3 win by UCF) and everybody saw UCF, and they’re a really talented team. I don’t know how the race will shake out. We just have to keep playing. That’s all we can do because this is a really good league.
“It’s got parity, it’s deep, and if you don’t play your best football, you’re going to get beat.”
K-State jumped out to a 35-7 lead and kept going. It has outscored its opponents 272-72 in Manhattan this season. The Wildcats played in front of a crowd of 51,790, which marked the 13th consecutive sellout at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“I’m telling you, the environment and crowd, we feed off that energy so well,” Howard said. “It gives us so much confidence.”
Howard threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns, setting the all-time record for passing touchdowns in the second quarter with his third scoring toss of the game. The two-yard scoring strike to Christian Moore with 13 minutes, 7 seconds left until halftime, gave Howard 45 career touchdown passes, passing Josh Freeman for the all-time mark.
“It’s an unbelievable honor,” Howard said. “I couldn’t do it without all those guys in that locker room who’ve caught passes from me and have blocked from me, the defense, all my team. I wouldn’t be able to do this without all my guys. I’m blessed and grateful. It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet.”
Howard has thrown 12 touchdowns and one interception in the last four games. He went 19-of-29 passing and connected with nine different pass catchers.
“The kid has battled through, and he’s playing at such a high level right now,” Klieman said. “Excited for him as he’s having a great season.”
Six different players scored a total of six offensive touchdowns for the Wildcats, who also had two defensive touchdowns — a 15-yard fumble recovery by linebacker Desmond Purnell and a 45-yard interception return by Keenan Garber — while also forcing four turnover on downs.
“We had four stops on fourth down,” Klieman said. “This is a part of what you have to do when you play Baylor. You have to play four downs.”
The Wildcats led 35-13 at halftime. By that time, Howard already fired his third touchdown. He went to the bench in the fourth quarter and received a rousing ovation by fans as his record achievement was announced inside the stadium. Freshman Avery Johnson helped score the final points for the Wildcats when he found Garrett Oakley with a 28-yard touchdown pass to put the Wildcats ahead at 59-19 with under 4 minutes to play.
“We’re rolling,” Howard said. “We feel really good. We still have a lot of good football ahead of us. I feel really good about it and we’re excited.”
DJ Giddens, who caught a short pass and turned it into a 31-yard touchdown to begin the game, rushed 18 times for 115 yards while Treshaun Ward had 44 yards and one score on 10 carries.
Tight end Ben Sinnott had three catches for 68 yards and one touchdown, and Oakley had three catches for 46 and a touchdown as well. Phillip Brooks led with five catches for 41 yards and was particularly pivotal on the first couple scoring drives for the Wildcats, who turned a 7-7 tie into a blowout by scoring the next 28 points, capped by Howard’s record-setting touchdown pass.
“We expected to bounce back, to be honest, just with our prep and how we fought at the end of the Texas game last week,” Brooks said. “I knew there wasn’t going to be a falloff, and we played well. We expected this. I’m glad we executed and got the W.”
The Wildcats were firing on all cylinders when their defense sprang into action. Defensive end Cody Stufflebean sacked Baylor quarterback Blake Shapen, forced a fumble, and Purnell scooped up the ball and sprinted 15 yards untouched into the end zone for a 21-7 advantage. Later, Garber intercepted a pass and returned it 45 yards for a score, giving the Wildcats a 52-19 lead.
“Coach Klanderman called a great blitz and luckily they slid away from me, and I just got free and got home,” Stufflebean said.
Added Purnell: “It’s always great trying to find the end zone. I was shocked that I made it in there.”
K-State outgained Baylor 451-332. The Bears’ best offensive possession came at the end of the game — a 10-play, 77-yard charge in which Shapen completed a 6-yard pass to Monaray Baldwin with 20 seconds left.
The K-State marching band played, “Happy Trails to You.” Fans applauded as the Wildcats headed to the locker room.
Now K-State embarks on its next test: Kansas.
“We have to look ahead to attacking tomorrow and Monday, and we’ve done a great job of taking things day by day,” offensive lineman KT Leveston said. “Like Coach Klieman says, ‘Win the dang day.’”