By D. Scott Fritchen
FORT WORTH, Texas – No. 17 Kansas State was forced to use three different quarterbacks, and an injury-plagued defense simply couldn’t keep up with one of the top offenses in the FBS, as No. 8 TCU charged to a 38-28 victory over the Wildcats at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez left after the first possession with an injury and junior Will Howard showed incredible poise in leading the Wildcats to touchdowns on four straight possessions, as the Wildcats took a 28-17 lead into the half. When Howard was tackled hard and injured his left shoulder late in the third quarter, redshirt freshman Jake Rubley came into the game.
By the time Howard returned to the field with 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Wildcats faced a 38-28 deficit, which proved to be too much to overcome in the matchup between two top-20 teams for sole possession of first place in the Big 12 Conference standings.
“We beat ourselves,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “We didn’t make enough plays and in a tight ball game with two really good football teams, it comes down to making plays, and I thought they made more the second half — we obviously made more in the first half — but the second half just got away from us.”
Howard completed 13 of 20 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns and one interception added nine carries for 31 yards and one score on the ground for K-State, 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12, which entered the game just seven points from an unbeaten record.
“Obviously, the position I’m in that’s my job is to always be ready, and for the last three years that’s something I’ve had to do,” Howard said. “So, I always know that’s a possibility, and I prepare to be ready, and the guys rallied around me really well.”
Malik Knowles had four catches for 69 yards. Deuce Vaughn had 12 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown and had four catches for 38 yards.
Vaughn reached 2,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in his storied career, becoming just the 10th player in Big 12 history to do so.
“Will Howard played really well tonight,” Klieman said. “It was a game that if a helmet popped off we would’ve gone with Jake, but when we knew Adrian wasn’t going to come back this was Will Howard’s game. He made some big-time plays.”
However, TCU, 7-0 and 4-0, showed why its offense ranks near the most efficient in the nation while snapping a three-game losing streak to the Wildcats. The Horned Frogs outgained the Wildcats 495 to 390 and went 10 for 19 on third downs. K-State was held to 3 of 9 on third downs.
K-State, which entered near the top of the nation in scoring defense, did an admirable job limiting TCU, and then — boom — the powerful Horned Frogs scored 28 unanswered points.
TCU rolled to 239 yards in the second half while K-State managed just 82. The Wildcats substituted liberally as injuries on both sides of the ball mounted as the game went on.
“We couldn’t tackle and get off blocks on defense and we had trouble sustaining anything on offense,” Klieman said. “We couldn’t get off the field. Some of it was self-inflicted because we couldn’t get off a block or make a tackle or there were 50-50 balls.”
Howard was tackled hard on a short run and injured his left shoulder at the TCU 26-yard line with 5:15 left in the third quarter. That brought Rubley under center. However, the Wildcats proved inconsistent against the TCU defense while Max Duggan helped the Horned Frogs light up the scoreboard en route to their fourth straight win against a nationally-ranked opponent.
While Duggan went 17 of 26 passing for 280 yards and three touchdowns, and running back Kendre Miller had 29 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t until star wide receiver Quentin Johnston hauled in a 55-yard touchdown reception that TCU took the lead at 31-28 with 3:45 left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats, who have held every FBS opponent under its scoring average, could never recover and were held off the scoreboard the entire second half.
“Obviously, we had a pretty good first half and a disappointing no points in the second half,” Howard said. “It’s disappointing. It’s a game we should’ve won.”
TCU started the fireworks on its first drive when Duggan found Derius Davis on a crossing route on a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
K-State, which was unable to score on its first drive, emerged for its second drive with Howard trotting onto the field in place of Martinez, who went to the locker room with an apparent injury.
On Howard’s third play from scrimmage, he threw a fade to Kade Warner, who adjusted, for a 28-yard touchdown.
“I had to give my guy a shot to win,” Howard said. “It wasn’t really a good throw, but Kade made a heck of a play on the ball, and that was a really good play by him.”
Proving it was no fluke, Howard-led K-State scored a touchdown on four consecutive possessions.
After holding TCU to a 43-yard field goal, Howard was sensational again, this time finding Knowles down the middle of the field on a left-to-right route for 37 yards to the 1-yard line. Howard ran the ball into the end zone for a 14-10 lead.
Howard attacked TCU again, this time hitting DJ Giddens with a 26-yard wheel route, hitting Vaughn with a 20-yard pass, and finally completing a nine-yard touchdown strike to Samuel Wheeler in the end zone, and K-State led 21-10.
K-State jumped to a 28-10 lead when Vaughn ran 47 yards for a score.
The Wildcats did a magnificent job keeping the Horned Frogs out of the end zone a majority of the first half.
“We started out pretty well,” K-State nose tackle Eli Huggins said. “They have an incredible offense, a ton of playmakers, a great running back, great receiver, the quarterback is a competitor. We were playing well in the first half.”
TCU put together its best drive of the first half on its final possession — a 10-play, 91-yard drive capped by Duggan’s four-yard pass to Jared Wiley for a touchdown — and K-State went into the locker room with a 28-17 lead.
That TCU scored a touchdown just before the end of the first half and came out of the locker room to score again turned the tide, as the Wildcats fell short for the first time in the league season.
“We just kind of stalled out there and the momentum started to shift and we could never really get it back in our favor,” Huggins said. “When we needed to make big plays we couldn’t get it done, and whenever they needed big plays they were finding a way to do so.”