By D. Scott Fritchen
ARLINGTON, Texas – No. 10 Kansas State used a monster fourth-down stop in overtime and Ty Zentner drilled a 31-yard field goal as the Wildcats outlasted No. 3 TCU in a 31-28 thriller to capture the 2022 Big 12 Championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
In what became an instant classic in K-State lore, the Wildcats captured their first Big 12 title since 2012, their first victory in a Big 12 Championship Game since 2003, and reached the top of the mountain in one of the best conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Afterward, confetti shot into the air, and K-State head coach Chris Klieman hoisted the Big 12 trophy, which rested beside him in the postgame news conference.
“Big 12 Champions — it has a nice ring to it,” Klieman said. “We went toe-to-toe with them, I thought we could go toe-to-toe with them, and we found a way to win. It was an exceptional football game, a lot of ups and downs between both teams, and great resolve by our guys.”
K-State, 10-3, reached double-digit wins for the first time since the 2012 campaign, in which the Wildcats bounced back from a loss at Baylor to beat No. 23 Texas 48-24 in Manhattan. These Wildcats redeemed themselves from a 38-28 loss to the Horned Frogs earlier this season by handing them their first loss of the season. That’s something the Wildcats also did in the 2003 title game when they beat unbeaten Oklahoma.
That K-State won its fourth conference title in the program’s long history?
“I’ll let that sink in at some point,” Klieman said.
K-State has now beaten three top-10 opponents this season — the others were at No. 6 Oklahoma and against No. 9 Oklahoma State — for the first time in school history.
TCU, 12-1, had fought back to win five games in which it trailed, most in the FBS, and turned an 11-point deficit into a 28-28 tie behind gutty quarterback Max Duggan, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Duggan was magnificent — he threw for 251 yards and one touchdown and one interception to go along with 110 rushing yards and one touchdown.
However, K-State received an equally gutty performance from Will Howard, who threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
“We knew it was going to be a fight,” Howard said. “We took some punches, and they took some punches, too. At the end of the day, we knew we were built for it and we know what we had.”
Running back Deuce Vaughn was named Big 12 Championship Game Most Outstanding Player after rushing for 130 yards while dashing 44 yards for a score to put the Wildcats ahead 28-17 with 11 minutes, 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“We ran a man scheme and our no-pull-power play and the defensive end slanted and great job by Kaitori Leveston to mash him down and it opened up the seam,” Vaughn said. “The corner came out and I had a little bit of space and after that it was one-on-one with the safety. I don’t do anything without those guys up front and along the perimeter.”
Back and forth the teams battled until the very end. TCU answered Vaughn’s long touchdown with a 42-yard field goal by Griffin Kell and then an eight-yard rush by Duggan with 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter. Jared Wiley caught the 2-point conversion for a 28-28 tie and the game went to an extra period.
“We just stayed in the fight,” Klieman said. “We talk all the time you’re going to face adversity and you have to stay in the fight. Once we got to overtime and were on defense first, we knew we were going to get a stop.”
K-State put the clamps on TCU’s offense with perhaps the most important fourth-down stop in school history.
Linebacker Daniel Green and nose tackle Eli Huggins stuffed Kendre Miller for no gain at the goal line, giving the Wildcats possession and a chance to win.
“We’ve talked about situations like that,” Green said. “We bowed up and that’s what championship games come down to. It comes down to someone making the extra play. I’m so proud of those guys. That’s a statement right there. We always talk about the Mob mentality. It doesn’t get any better than that right there on the goal line.”
Under overtime rules, K-State began its drive at the TCU 25-yard line. The Wildcats rushed five times to set up Zentner’s game-winner.
“I’d say over the last five or six games, there may not be a more valuable kid on our football team than Ty Zentner,” Klieman said. “There was no doubt in my mind he was making that. No doubt.”
K-State entered averaging 40.2 points over its past five games, fifth most among Power 5 schools over that span, while the Wildcats gave up just 15 second-half points over the past five games. The Wildcats punched their ticket for the Big 12 title game with a 47-27 win over Kansas last Saturday.
K-State’s only losses this season have been to teams currently ranked in the CFP Top 25 Poll. That includes No. 16 Tulane, which played in the American Conference Championship on Saturday.
It was the Wildcats who wore purple Championship t-shirts and black Championship hats after the battle with the Horned Frogs.
“It means everything,” Green said. “If you’re playing Power 5 football and Big 12 football it’s what you came here to do. To be able to do it with the group of guys on this team, a great group of men, and a great coaching staff, it’s really an amazing feeling.”
Added Vaughn: “This is what we wanted to accomplish this year. It’s big time. It’s a big thank-you to everybody who’s poured into us as players.”
TCU, led by Big 12 Coach of the Year Sonny Dykes, entered as the first Big 12 team to reach a 12-0 record since Texas in 2009.
This marked TCU’s second appearance in the Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium — a 41-17 loss to Oklahoma in 2017.
TCU entered with five wins against ranked opponents, tied with Tennessee for most nationally, and was the first team since 1975 to win seven straight games by 10 points or less.
TCU also was 5-0 when trailing in the second half, best in the nation. The Horned Frogs battled back from a 28-10 deficit to beat the Wildcats earlier this season.
This time, K-State prevailed.
“This journey has been so long, and it’s been a ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Green said. “Through adversity and ups and downs we believed in each other.
“We believed we could to this.”
And K-State did it in front of a crowd of 69,335 at AT&T Stadium. About half of the crowd was K-State fans.
“The K-State Nation came today,” Klieman said. “That crowd was electric, and it was an unbelievable atmosphere and when we were on defense that crowd was phenomenal. I can’t thank our fan base enough coming down here in droves and cheering on these guys.
“We were playing for them as much as we were playing for each other.”
In the end, it came down to a single kick.
And Zentner made arguably the biggest field goal in school history.
And then he kissed the ground.
“Coach always tells us to be where our feet are and to embrace everything, every opportunity and every moment that we get,” Zentner said. “I knew it was special and that we just made history.
“I was trying to soak it all in.”