By D. Scott Fritchen
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – No. 15 Kansas State scored on six of its first seven possessions and maintained its inside track for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game with a 48-31 win at West Virginia on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium.
In one of the wildest first halves in a K-State game in years, the Wildcats raced and rolled to a 41-25 lead at halftime, then surrendered just one touchdown the rest of the way to emphatically earn their first victory in Morgantown since 2014.
K-State, 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big 12, now must beat Kansas next Saturday to clinch a berth in the Big 12 title game against No. 4 TCU on December 3 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Just making it to that point is what we all come here for,” said K-State wide receiver Malik Knowles, who had six catches for 111 yards and one touchdown. “We don’t want to just settle for a bowl game. We start every season trying to make it to the Big 12 Championship.”
Will Howard, who started for a second time in place of injured Adrian Martinez, completed 19-of-27 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns and one interception to help the Wildcats tie the school record by winning their fourth road conference game of the season. The Wildcats previously won at then-No. 6 Oklahoma (41-34), at Iowa State (10-9), and at Baylor (31-3). The Wildcats also won four road Big 12 games in 1998 and 2012.
“We said in the locker room that we’re the best road team in the Big 12,” said defensive end Brendon Mott, who had a career-high three sacks. “We love coming out here and playing in opposing stadiums.”
K-State has now won three of its last four games while Howard has put together several standout performances. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and one interception in the last four games in which he has played.
“That kid is playing with so much confidence and he’s thrown some lasers in there,” said K-State head coach Chris Klieman, who earned his 100th career victory. “This was a big statement game for Will after coming here in 2020 and struggling. I’m just so proud of that kid. He might be the most-improved player in the Big 12 right now.”
Playing in sub-30 degree temperatures, K-State seemingly put things on ice from the beginning in scoring four touchdowns on its first five possessions against a West Virginia defense that entered ranked 118th in scoring defense and 101st in total defense.
Howard, a native of nearby Downingtown, Pennsylvania, played with many family members and friends in stands, and had the Wildcats humming, overcoming an early pick-six to keep the offense rolling.
“The young Will Howard, a pick-six would’ve affected me differently, but I have more experience, I’m older and more mature, and I feel like I believe in myself more, and when you have that true intrinsic confidence and believe in yourself, and know your teammates believe in you and you believe in your teammates, it’s hard not to go back out there and pound the stone every play,” Howard said.
The Mountaineers, 4-7 and 2-6, are eliminated from bowl contention for a second time in four years under Neal Brown despite a valiant effort from sophomore quarterback Garrett Greene, who in his first-career start went 15-of-27 passing for 204 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions.
However, K-State’s defense, which has been decimated by injury as the season has worn on, stiffened when it needed to, particularly in the second half, after the teams combined for 66 points and 553 total yards in the first two quarters.
“That was really fun going out there with the boys and having fun and, man, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Mott said. “Let’s keep this train rolling. Everyone has each other’s back and we’re balling out.”
West Virginia opened the third quarter and went on a 16-play, 49-yard drive that consumed 8:35 but resulted in no points when Casey Legg missed a 44-yard field goal.
On the prettiest play of the game for the Wildcats, Howard connected with Knowles on a 43-yard touchdown to make it 48-25 with 12:24 left in the fourth quarter. Facing third-and-13, Knowles caught the ball at the 32-yard line, spun around Malachi Ruffin and out-raced Exree Loe down the sideline before diving into the end zone.
“Third-and-long, throwing it to Malik, and then Malik breaks a tackle and goes for a touchdown, that’s a game-changing play,” Klieman said. “It’s so huge to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter.”
From there, the Wildcats cruised toward their Senior Night in one of the most-anticipated Sunflower Showdown meetings in history.
“It’s going to be a fun one, it’s going to be a wild one,” Mott said. “We need a good week of preparation. I’m excited for next Saturday.”
K-State tied its season high in points this season, carded its most points in a conference road game since scoring 49 points at Texas Tech in 2013, and also enjoyed its highest-scoring first half since it scored 42 against Florida Atlantic in 2016. West Virginia allowed its most points in an opening half since Baylor hung 56 on the Mountaineers during the first half in 2013.
The Wildcats’ scoring barrage began from the first possession when Deuce Vaughn dashed 15 yards into the end zone less than three minutes into the contest. Then Cincere Mason returned an interception 37 yards for a score one minute later for a 14-0 lead.
“We knew we wanted to rip it, and we got the ball, and we’ve been a really good first-drive team this season,” Howard said. “It’s a huge confidence booster and momentum grabber for us. We marched down pretty quick, and it set the tone for the game for sure.”
West Virginia got on the scoreboard when Sam James scored on a 26-yard reception. Then Ruffin returned an interception 43 yards for a score. However, West Virginia missed the point-after attempt and K-State led 14-13 with 6:41 left in the first quarter.
The scoring only continued.
DJ Giddens raced down the sideline a career-long 49 yards for a touchdown and Howard scored off the power formation set as the Wildcats rebuilt their lead to 28-13. Then Greene responded with a 71-yard scoring toss to James, but the Mountaineers misfired on the point-after attempt again.
Sinnott had three catches for 85 yards and caught his touchdown on a 15-yard reception and K-State widened its margin to 35-19 with 13:28 left in the second quarter.
“I have all the confidence in the world in that guy,” Howard said. “He’s got incredibly strong hands and he’s a great athlete. I just wanted to let him make a play, and man, he made a heck of a play on that ball.”
Again West Virginia fought back. This time Greene led the longest drive for either team of the first half — an 11-play, 87-yard jaunt that ended when he found James for a five-yard touchdown catch to make it 35-25 with 6:55 left in the second quarter.
That was it for the West Virginia touchdowns in the first half.
Meanwhile, Ty Zentner, whose longest-career field goal was 31 yards, nailed a 46- and 53-yarder over the final 96 seconds to make it 41-25 heading into the locker room.
Zentner’s 53-yard field goal tied the opponent record at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“Ty Zentner getting those field goals – big field goals, long field goals – that was huge for us,” Klieman said. “He’s been crushing the ball in every aspect right now. Those were huge points.”
The Wildcats stiffened down the stretch and now inch closer to an intriguing game against Kansas next Saturday.
“I’m going to just enjoy this one and we’ll worry about next week next week,” Klieman said. “We’ve got to control what we can control. That’s what we’re worried about. It’s just on to the next one.”