By D. Scott Fritchen
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas State fans chanted, “FIFTEEN YEARS!” and senior long-snapper Randen Plattner directed the marching band in the stands and coaches and players pumped their fists in elation as Memorial Stadium in Lawrence gained a purple hue.
No. 21 K-State 31, No. 25 Kansas 27.
In what was billed as the biggest Dillions Sunflower Showdown since the teams met when they were both ranked in 1995, Will Howard rushed 15 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 10 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in the game and the Wildcats held off the Jayhawks to bring the coveted Governor’s Cup Trophy back to Manhattan, where it will remain for a series-record 15th year.
“Toughness, battling for your brothers— that was a good football team we beat,” Klieman said. “We knew we’d get their best shot, and we did get their best shot. For a while, it didn’t look really good. We were struggling to slow them down. We hung in there and just hung in there.”
“I knew they were a good team, and we were a good team,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “I thought this would be a four-quarter game. They have guys with a ton of pride over there. Nothing surprised me.”
Although K-State had won the last five in the series by no fewer than 20 points, this was an improved Kansas team and the Wildcats had to fight back from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter to secure victory in the 121st edition of the series between the in-state rivals.
K-State, 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big 12 Conference entered the day in a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12 standings with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The Jayhawks, who dropped to 7-4 and 5-4, showed plenty of fight.
In the end, K-State showed more.
“There are no words to describe it,” All-American left guard Cooper Beebe said. “For us to finish the way we did, it’s just a spectacular feeling.”
The Wildcats out-toughened the Jayhawks when it mattered most after a battle that kept the crowd of 42,233 on its toes for more than three hours.
The Wildcats were successful in running out the clock in the final 5:33.
“We wanted to finish the game with the ball in our hands,” Howard said. “We did a really, really good job with that. We did what we had to do and got first downs.”
Howard completed 13-of-24 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. DJ Giddens had 21 carries for 102 yards and one score. Ben Sinnott had four catches for 39 yards one touchdown. Keagan Johnson had two catches for 17 yards and one touchdown.
The Jayhawks, who led 21-16 at halftime, appeared bust the game open on the first drive of the third quarter. That’s when former walk-on freshman quarterback Cole Ballard threw an intermediate pass to tight end Mason Fairchild, who sprinted down the K-State sideline for a 59-yard gain. Devin Neal scored his third touchdown of the game on an option pitch to the right side as the Jayhawks took a 27-16 lead.
“We kept attacking and knew if we kept going one play at a time good things would happen,” linebacker Austin Moore said.
The Wildcats rallied on a 10-play, 87-yard jaunt keyed by a 52-yard rush by Treshaun Ward before Giddens carried the load the rest of the way, including his 1-yard score up the middle. Howard ran into the end zone for a 2-point conversion and the Wildcats jumped back into it, trailing 27-24.
Ballard committed the game’s first turnover when Kobe Savage intercepted a tipped pass to give the Wildcats possession. But four plays later, K-State gave it right back when Howard’s third-down pass was picked by safety Mello Dotson.
K-State regained the lead when Howard capped a 6-play, 56-yard drive by rushing 15 yards into the end zone with 10:22 left in the fourth quarter.
“Our offensive line played a heck of a game,” Howard said. “DJ and Treshaun ran the ball really well. That was huge.”
K-State took the ball first and didn’t waste any time. Howard threw a 46-yard pass to Brown on the first play from scrimmage, then Giddens rushed for 18 yards to get the Wildcats into the red zone, where Howard hit Sinnott with an 11-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. It marked the eighth first-possession touchdown for the Wildcats this season.
“Any time you can win a football game in the Big 12, let alone a rivalry game, it’s huge,” Howard said. “I know how much this means to the Kansas State fan base. I’m so glad we could do this for all of K-State nation.”
Kansas answered on its second drive of the game when Neal capped an 11-play, 82-yard drive by breaking to the left, spinning around Wildcats, and dashing 36 yards into the end zone to tie the game at 7-7 with 2:05 left in the first quarter.
Kansas took the lead on an 8-play, 76-yard drive in which a 33-yard pass from Ballard to Luke Grimm set up the Jayhawks at the 3-yard line. Neal took the pitchout to the left and skated untouched into the end zone for a touchdown. However, Nate Matlack blocked the extra-point attempt and Keenan Garber returned the ball 91 yards for a Wildcats’ 2-point conversion.
K-State regained the lead 16-13 on the strength of Giddens’ legs before Kansas cornerback Mello Dotson was called for holding on a fourth-and-3 play at the Kansas 23-yard line. That gave the Wildcats first-and-10 at the 13. After a short rush by Giddens, Howard found Keagan Johnson for a touchdown on a slant as he got in front of safety Marvin Grant near the goal line.
The Jayhawks took a 20-16 lead into halftime after a monster 13-play, 75-yard drive that consumed exactly seven minutes. A rarity, the Wildcats allowed a red-zone touchdown as the defense administered an all-out blitz on third-and-goal at the 5 and Ballard lofted the ball across the middle of the field and into the back of the end zone and into the awaiting hands of Grimm.
But the Wildcats never gave up.
“Nobody flinches,” Klieman said. “We were down at Texas and Oklahoma State, and nobody flinched. We felt like we had a chance to get this thing into the fourth quarter and that’s all we’re always asking for and always want. They keep fighting and keep the fight up. That’s the culture.”