By D. Scott Fritchen
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – No. 9 Kansas State found itself trailing No. 5 Alabama, 21-10, at halftime, and badly in need of points to mount a furious comeback in the Sugar Bowl. It had been 56 days since K-State tasted the bitter tang of defeat. Since then, the Wildcats had always answered the call.
Unfortunately, the Crimson Tide instead answered any questions about where they stand in the hierarchy of college football.
Will Howard threw for 210 yards and two interceptions, and Deuce Vaughn had 22 carries for 133 yards and one touchdown, but the Big 12 Champions saw their season come to an end in a 45-20 loss in their first New Year’s Six bowl game at Caesars Superdome.
The first-ever meeting between K-State and Alabama appeared to be evenly matched over the first 20 minutes before Bryce Young & Co. turned on the juice against the Wildcats in front of 60,437, which included an estimated 30,000 purple-clad loyalists who never seemed to lose their passion.
“We’re obviously disappointed in how this ended and our performance, but don’t be defined by a moment, be defined by a body of work,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “This body of work will be remembered in Kansas State history forever because these guys were Big 12 Champs and earned the right to represent our conference in the Sugar Bowl.
“We didn’t play our best football today. Give credit to Alabama.”
Purple filled the streets of New Orleans ahead of the highly-anticipated contest coming off K-State’s first league title in 10 years. The Wildcats sought to tie the school record with 11 wins. But Crimson swarmed the field and finished their season at 11-2 in their 17th appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
K-State finished its memorable season at 10-4.
“I’m forever grateful,” said sixth-year senior wide receiver Kade Warner, who had a team-high five catches for 48 yards in his final game. “The guys before us started this and they’re the ones that got this culture to where it is today. It was our job to make it better. Shout out to this team. Culture might not seem like a whole lot, but I promise you that culture means so much, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I’m on a team with such great culture.”
K-State had beaten three top-10 opponents in a single season for the first time in history — No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 9 Oklahoma State and No 3 TCU.
They were simply ineffective against the traditional SEC powerhouse over the final three quarters.
“It’s always tough but you have to stay in the fight,” Vaughn said. “Going into this game, we knew it was going to be a four-quarter football game. That’s a good football team we lost to. We understood they were going to make plays. For us on offense and defense we have to stay in the fight and we were unable to do that the entire game, and things got out of hand.”
Vaughn capped a memorable junior season with one of the best rushing performances in K-State bowl history. He put a stamp on a stellar junior season in which he earned Consensus All-American for a second straight season. Vaughn finished with 1,558 rushing yards to rank third in school history and his nine 100-yard rushing performances tied for second most in school history. His 1,936 all-purpose yards finished fifth in school history.
“The foundation that’s been set by this 2022 team is something that’s going to be felt for years to come,” Vaughn said. “It’s a special group.”
The game turned late in the first half. Just when it appeared K-State damaged Alabama while successfully alternating between Adrian Martinez and Howard at quarterback, the Wildcats saw a monster 18-play, 73-yard drive that took 10:32 of possession time yielded no points.
Twice the Wildcats successfully converted on fourth down. They just were unable to convert on the third fourth-down opportunity of the long drive — a fourth-and-goal play from the 2 when Howard threw the ball just past the outstretched arms of Ben Sinnott as he raced left to right a foot inside the end zone.
“We came here to win the game,” Howard said. “We were going to go for it in the red zone. We wanted seven, not three. Field goals don’t win games, especially against teams like Alabama. If we’d do it again I’d do the same thing, just got to make the throw.”
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the opportunistic Crimson Tide took advantage of the momentum swing.
Young, likely a top-5 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, who was brilliant in throwing for 321 yards and five touchdowns to five different pass catchers, led a 98-yard drive.
Alabama took over possession at the K-State 2-yard line with 61 seconds left in the second quarter. Trusting its defense, K-State called a timeout with 55 seconds remaining after the Wildcats stuffed Jahmyr Gibbs for a 2-yard gain. Alabama came out of the timeout and Young immediately threw a 22-yard pass to Gibbs. Three plays later, Young hit Jermaine Burton for a 28-yard gain, then hit Cameron Latu for 22 yards. Finally, facing first-and-10 at the K-State 12, Young connected a 12-yard touchdown pass to Burton deep in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown.
K-State found itself in a 21-10 hole.
To make things more difficult, Alabama and recovered a K-State onside kick to open the second half.
Two plays later, Young threw a 32-yard touchdown and the Superdome erupted for the Crimson Tide again. Then the Crimson Tide intercepted a pass. Then a score. And then another score.
“Too many explosive plays,” linebacker Daniel Green said. “When you start hitting explosive plays it gives your offense momentum and sparks a belief in your team. They had more explosive plays than we had.”
For as much as K-State seemed to push the right buttons over the first half, the Wildcats were unable to locate the switch down the stretch.
They trailed 35-10 before Ty Zentner booted his second field goal — a 28-yarder — with 6 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
It simply wasn’t their day.
Things couldn’t have started much better for K-State. Zentner opened the scoring with a 41-yard field goal less than 5 minutes into the game. After the defense forced a 3-and-out, Vaughn struck with the longest rush of his career.
Vaughn ran off tackle to the right, popped it outside, caught a block from Malik Knowles, and outraced cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry down the sideline before diving into the end zone for an 88-yard score — the longest run in the Sugar Bowl since 1958, the longest rush in K-State bowl history, and tied for the longest play in school bowl history.
“That was all blocking,” Vaughn said. “It was a duo scheme and they split it open in the middle and it was great blocking not just by the offensive line, but downfield by wide receivers on the safety, and after that it was a sprint to the end zone.”
Suddenly, K-State was ahead, 10-0.
But Alabama immediately answered.
Young hit Gibbs for a 60-yard catch and run to the K-State 9-yard line. Three plays later, Young found Isaiah Bond for a 6-yard touchdown to put the Crimson Tide on the scoreboard for the first time with 32 seconds left in the first quarter.
When K-State couldn’t respond, Young dazzled again — this time finding Jermaine Burton 47 yards down the sideline to the 2-yard line. Young hit Cameron Latu in the corner of the end zone for a 14-10 lead with 11:33 left in the second quarter — the lone lead change in the game.
From there, the Wildcats played catchup against one of the nation’s top teams — and the gap only seemed to widen until running back Jordan Schippers’ 1-yard touchdown run ended a 10-play, 71-yard drive with 3:06 left in the game.
“Thank you, K-State fan base and K-State Nation for coming out in droves,” Klieman said. “What we saw in the pep-rally last night with 10,000 or 12,000 people supporting these guys is why we all came to K-State. The fans out there today were phenomenal. We got off to a good start. I wish we could’ve given them a better show after that first quarter.
“My hat’s off to the best fan base in college football for coming out and supporting these great young men.”