By D. Scott Fritchen
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Will Howard threw for 213 yards and two touchdowns and Deuce Vaughn rushed for 147 yards and one score as No. 12 Kansas State punched its ticket to the Big 12 Championship Game with a 47-27 victory over Kansas that gave the Wildcats their 14th consecutive win in the Dillions Sunflower Showdown.
Amid persistent rain and mist, K-State, 9-3 overall and 7-2 in the Big 12, relied upon its passing game during the first half and then rode Vaughn and its powerful offensive line to the finish line in front of 51,861 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“When you come to K-State, you don’t lose to the Jayhawks,” said Howard, who hit tight end Sammy Wheeler with a 42-yard score in the first quarter and added a 14-yard scoring toss to Phillip Brooks in the second quarter as the Wildcats built a 30-21 halftime lead.
“We knew what was on the line,” Howard continued, “and we know what we have ahead of us.”
K-State will now face TCU in the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday, December 3 at 11 a.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“People doubted these guys all season long and doubted our guys in that locker room,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “Not many people thought we’d be in the position that we’re in. The guys downstairs did. This is a total body of work. That’s not just this football game. It’s a total body of work. These guys believed in each other and in the plan and they took ownership in their program.
“We rose up when people doubted those guys down there.”
K-State’s only losses this season have been to teams currently ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25. The Wildcats have essentially otherwise rolled.
“All the hard work and everything we’ve done for these past 11 months, we came together every single day,” Vaughn said. “We did it all for one common goal and we’ve gotten to that point. We understand that we have a lot more work to do, but all that preparation and hard work we’ve poured into this season has come to fruition.
“Now we’re exactly where we want to be.”
K-State won the 2012 Big 12 title but will play in its first Big 12 title game since 2003. The Wildcats could’ve clinched a spot in the 2022 league title game if Texas had lost to Baylor on Friday. With Texas’ win, the Wildcats had to beat the Jayhawks in order to face the Horned Frogs.
“We didn’t want to back in by having Texas lose yesterday,” Klieman said. “We needed to earn this, and guys needed to earn this. We’re smart enough to realize there was a lot of pressure on us as a coaching staff and as players to finish this deal. We had one more chapter in the regular season.
“They finished the chapter the right way and earned the opportunity.”
Although K-State led by nine points at halftime, the margin seemed smaller. Second-year Kansas head coach Lance Leipold has the Jayhawks playing their best football in more than a decade and they wouldn’t go down easily.
However, K-State outscored Kansas, 17-6, over the final two quarters, then celebrated with the Governor’s Cup trophy presentation in the locker room.
“It’s huge,” linebacker Austin Moore said. “Just beating KU is huge and now we know we can talk about what we have coming up with the Big 12 Championship. It means a whole lot.”
Howard was 11-of-18 for 213 yards and two touchdowns in the opening two quarters. Then Vaughn had 17 carries for 94 yards and one touchdown in the second half, as the Wildcats bellied up and drove the ball down the field.
K-State outgained Kansas 443-307 behind a balanced attack — the Wildcats had 230 rushing yards and 213 passing.
“It was fun,” offensive lineman Hadley Panzer said. “There for a little bit, I’d look at Hayden Gillum and we yelled just because we were so fired up. We were running the ball. It was pretty special.”
Kansas, which entered the final game of the regular season with a winning record for the first time since 2008, also entered as one of six teams in the nation with 2,500 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, 2,200 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns.
K-State limited the Jayhawks to one scoring drive in the second half — an 8-play, 75-yard jaunt that took 8 minutes, 20 seconds and resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jalon Daniels to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 37-27 with 13:29 left in the fourth quarter. But the Jayhawks failed to capitalize on their momentum and misfired on their two-point conversion.
Moments later, Ty Zentner connected on a 27-yard field goal for a 40-27 lead before the Wildcats pounded the ball on the ground 85 yards on eight plays, capped by DJ Giddens’ five-yard run into the end zone with 4:30 remaining.
All that remained was the K-State Marching Band playing “Happy Trails.”
“I kind of reflected during the week and I tried not to spend too much time getting emotional, but it was awesome,” said Zentner, who also booted a career-long 72-yard punt. “I ended up here, the greatest place on earth.”
Bill Snyder Family Stadium certainly seemed like the happiest place on earth late Saturday.
“Some games coaches need to rile you up a little bit, but none of that was needed tonight,” Howard said. “We were all fired up ready to go. It was Senior Night. There was no outside external pump-up that anybody needed. We were locked in, and we knew what we needed to do. We knew it would be a battle. That was a good KU team.
“We were the better team, and we knew what we needed to do to win.”
K-State and Kansas combined for 51 points and 481 total yards in the first half, as the Wildcats led 31-20 heading into the locker room.
K-State opened the scoring when Kansas muffed a punt and the Wildcats recovered, setting up Knowles for a 5-yard touchdown. However, Kansas responded, going 75 yards in nine plays, as Torry Locklin raced 12 yards into the end zone to tie it at 7-7.
The Wildcats had several exciting plays in the first half, the first of which came when Howard demonstrated his recognition and patience in finding wide-open Wheeler for a 42-yard touchdown.
Moments later, and pinned deep in its own territory, Kansas right tackle Bryce Cabeldue was called for holding in the end zone for a safety and the Wildcats led 16-7. The Wildcats drove again, and Knowles raced four yards for another touchdown and a 23-7 lead.
“Malik is so good to have on your team. When you can hand the ball to him and he can make a big play and you can throw it to him and he can make a big play — he’s unguardible,” Howard said. “He can’t be guarded. He’s been playing like that all year. He’s a huge asset to have as a quarterback.”
Kansas muffed a punt, was penalized for 12 men on the field, had blown coverage on a 42-yard reception, was penalized for a block in the back on a kickoff return, and was penalized for holding in the end zone for a safety in the first quarter alone.
However, the Jayhawks were methodical on offense and scored all three of their first-half touchdowns on 75-yard drives. That included when Devin Neal finished off an 11-play jaunt with an 11-yard score to cut the deficit to 23-14.
K-State answered again. This time Howard threw a short pass to Vaughn, who made two defenders miss and dashed 80 yards to get up a 14-yard touchdown catch by Brooks — a five-play, 92-yard drive that consumed just 2:42. K-State led, 30-14.
Twice K-State led by 16 points in the first half and both times the Jayhawks responded to cut it to single digits.
Kansas simply couldn’t keep up with a team that spent the season proving doubters wrong, and now the Wildcats have a date against TCU to battle for the Big 12 trophy.
“Extremely thankful to be here,” Klieman said. “Extremely blessed in our fourth season to get the opportunity to go to AT&T Stadium and represent this great school and university and football program.
“Our kids are so excited.”