By D. Scott Fritchen
ORLANDO, Fla. – No. 25 Kansas State ate up nearly eight minutes while putting together its final scoring drive in a 28-19 win over No. 18 NC State.
Afterward, the Wildcats enjoyed some Pop-Tarts while looking toward the future.
Avery Johnson, in his first collegiate start, threw for 178 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score, and DJ Giddens had 152 rushing yards and one score as well, as the Wildcats, 9-4, capped off their 2023 season in style in the Pop-Tarts Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
“2024 is going to be a special year,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said, standing upon the victor’s stage on the football field after the Wildcats clinched a ninth victory for a third straight season.
“(Johnson) is a special, special talent,” Klieman said. “The kid is mature beyond his years. I think people saw that.”
Johnson, a 19-year-old phenom from Wichita, Kansas, arrived at K-State prior to this season as the No. 1-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation. He replaced Will Howard, who threw a school-record 48 career touchdown passes before entering the transfer portal.
“There’ve been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of learning,” Johnson said. “When you come into college, you don’t know what to expect. I’m so happy I chose Kansas State. I’m so happy I got to be around these players and coaches. They truly do care about you, and it truly is a brotherhood and a family and it’s not like that at other places, and I’m 100% sure of that.”
He showed that maturity throughout the bowl game in throwing the ball away when he couldn’t find an open receiver and going 31 pass attempts without suffering a single sack. His maturity perhaps most notably rose in helping author a drive that will be talked about into the offseason. With K-State leading by just 21-19 after three quarters, the Wildcats needed to widen the gap to put away the game.
Johnson led a 15-play, 72-yard charge that consumed 7 minutes, 24 seconds, featured a fourth-down conversion to creep inside the red zone, and ended when Johnson checked into a play and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jayce Brown with 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“I looked at him and saw he gave me the check and I knew I had a slot fade, and I knew he was going to throw it to me and trust me,” Brown said. “I just had to go up there and get it.”
On the very next play from scrimmage, NC State quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw an interception to K-State cornerback Jacob Parrish, sending the offense back onto the field to run out the final minutes.
“Man, I was on a blitz, and I saw the quarterback threw the ball and I just saw Jacob pick the ball off,” said safety VJ Payne, who had a key sack on a two-point conversion attempt. “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. I’m proud of him.”
The K-State Marching Band blared “Happy Trails” from its stadium section, K-State fans chanted, “We want Pop-Tarts,” and the stadium sound system played, “Final Countdown.”
Indeed, it was a happy final countdown for K-State seniors in their final game.
That includes Consensus All-American left guard Cooper Beebe, who opted to play rather than begin preparing for the NFL Draft.
“Being a leader of this team, I love K-State to death, K-State is my family, and I never wanted to leave them hanging,” Beebe said. “We’ve been through a lot with these guys, and I had to finish it the right way.”
NC State, 9-4, saw its five-game winning streak snapped and fell just short of capturing its second 10-win season in program history.
NC State had the longest play of the game when it needed it. Late in the third quarter, tight end Trent Pennix took a snap out of punt formation and raced 60 yards for a touchdown. The 2-point conversion failed when Payne blew through a gap and sacked Armstrong, but NC State had still pulled to within 21-19 with 1:50 left in the third quarter.
Just when it seemed like K-State had improved upon its lead as Seth Porter returned a punt 41 yards into the end zone with 10:12 left in the game, an illegal block in the back on the Wildcats wiped away the touchdown. Six plays later, Johnson completed a 52-yard pass to Jadon Jackson, but K-State was flagged for holding.
But K-State, hardened by four losses by a total of 21 points this season, wouldn’t be stopped.
“A great win for our program and for our seniors to finish the legacy of 2023 with this group and start a new journey with our 2024 guys,” Klieman said. “That’s what bowl games are becoming a little bit. We honored the seniors and got a glimpse of the 2024 group.
“(NC State) has a really good football team. I have tons of respect for Coach (Dave) Doeren. They play physical and hard. Those are two mirrored programs. The game was physical on both sides and that’s what we knew it would be.”
K-State struck on the game’s first possession as Giddens’ powerful running set up the first score. After rumbling 20 yards on the first play from scrimmage, Giddens continued to plow his way down the field. When the Wildcats appeared to be stopped, Johnson on fourth down and five yards to go hit wide-open Giddens down the middle of the field for a 37-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
“The play (Johnson) made making the check on the first drive and throwing that touchdown pass to DJ,” Klieman said, “we worked that, and we had not done that (play) all year.”
Added Giddens: “That’s a play we had practiced all week. We were prepared for it.”
NC State threatened and drove 64 yards on 13 plays, but K-State stiffened, and Jevon Banks and Damian Ilalio stuffed Armstrong on fourth-and-1 at the K-State 10-yard line.
K-State struggled to make the most of its opportunity — that is, until punter Jack Blumer rushed 30 yards down the middle of the field on a fake punt to the K-State 41-yard line. That livened up the crowd and offered a much-needed shot of momentum into the Wildcats.
From there, Giddens rushed for nine yards to set up Johnson’s 28-yard pass to tight end Garrett Oakley. Giddens, who had 12 carries for 90 yards in the first half, plowed the ball into the end zone from four yards out for a 14-0 lead with 7:29 left until halftime.
“He ran through people, that’s what he did best,” Beebe said. “That dude is a stud. That kid is special.”
Armstrong and NC State answered. The Wolfpack started the game 5-for-8 on third downs largely behind the legs of Armstrong and he made the Wildcats pay during a 9-play, 76-yard drive. He put his team on the board by converting two third downs and then rushing 31 yards into the end zone with 3:22 left in the second quarter to make it 14-7.
Johnson, who threw for 106 yards and one touchdown in the first two quarters, dazzled as the Wildcats looked for a score to close out the first half. He completed three passes, Giddens picked up first downs on the ground, and then Johnson weaved in and out of the Wolfpack’s defense for a 19-yard score and a 21-7 advantage with 55 seconds left.
The Wolfpack managed to put together a drive and kicked a 26-yard field goal as time expired on the first half to make it 21-10.
The K-State seniors were one half from the end of their careers and Johnson was one half from capturing bowl MVP honors after his first career start.
“I just carry myself with confidence in everything that I do,” Johnson said. “I credit my dad always for making sure I’m confident in myself. When you have teammates and coaches around you who are confident in your ability, it just ultimately makes it easier. Credit to them for making my job easier today.”
K-State persevered, bouncing back from a 42-35 home loss to Iowa State, and was the team celebrating with Pop-Tarts in the end.
“Especially after that last home game, we wanted to set this thing right,” said senior linebacker Austin Moore, who will return for a fifth season. “I think we did. I’m super happy about that.”
With Johnson leading the way, the sky seems to be the limit for the Wildcats next fall.
“You know the No. 1 stat you look for? It’s did you win the game,” Klieman said. “Do you know what? He’s 1-0 as a starting quarterback. He helped us win with big-time play after big-time play.”