“A tale of two halves” is a tired sports platitude, but sometimes it just fits. Such was the case Saturday for the Kansas State defense in the Wildcats’ 34-27 home loss to Texas.
K-State bled points and yards in the first half before shoring things up in the second, allowing the offense to attempt a valiant comeback.
But the damage the Longhorns inflicted in the opening two periods was simply too much to overcome.
“Everything that could go wrong in that first half defensively probably did go wrong, and probably a lot of of self-inflicted things for us,” said Wildcats head coach Chris Klieman. “We just got caught on our heels against a really good offense, a good back, good quarterback, good receiver. Just couldn’t get out of our own way and just didn’t make plays.”
The game started inauspiciously for K-State, as senior cornerback Julius Brents was disqualified from the game after a targeting penalty on the fifth play from scrimmage. That forced true freshman Jacob Parrish into full-time duty the rest of the way.
“I thought Jacob Parrish came in and did a really nice job, but you lose a guy with close to 20 starts, probably, and is an all-conference-type player and is a really good cover guy and is a really good tackler,” Klieman said. “So absolutely it had an impact.”
Four plays later, Texas running back Bijan Robinson took a handoff and bounced off tackles to the end zone from 36 yards out.
Robinson exploded for 161 yards rushing on 15 carries in the first half, while quarterback Quinn Ewers went 13-of-22 passing for 146 yards and touchdown passes of 13 yards and 3 yards to Xavier Worthy. Roschon Johnson had a 9-yard touchdown rushing, and the Longhorns put up 356 yards — 206 of which came on the ground.
“We just were really struggling with tackling in the first half,” said senior nose guard Eli Huggins. “I don’t know why. Obviously, Robinson is a heck of a player. We were kind of struggling to get him down.
“Our biggest problem was probably communication. They were doing a lot shifts and trades and stuff, kind of messing with us. We had calls and everything to get adjusted, but just as loud as it was and as much as they were doing, we were just struggling to get lined up properly.”
Texas scored on five of its six first-half drives. The only time the Longhorns failed to notch points came in the second quarter, when K-State cornerback Ekow Boye-Doe punched the ball away from Johnson — who was streaking toward the end zone — and Parrish came up with the recovery at the Wildcats 10-yard line.
But the K-State offense turned the ball over on downs on its ensuing drive, and Texas scored 10 more points before halftime — stretching a 21-10 lead to a 31-10 advantage.
In the locker room at the intermission, the message was relatively simple.
“Settle down and stay in the fight,” Klieman said.
“We just told each other, ‘It’s on us as a defense,’” said senior linebacker Daniel Green, who made his return to the lineup after missing last week’s game against Oklahoma State because of an injury. “We are a pretty good defense, and we needed to be better than what we were in the first half. We kind of took ownership of that and attacked that second half.”
Senior safety Josh Hayes forced a fumble on the Longhorns’ first drive of the second half and Huggins recovered it at the Texas 24-yard line.
The Wildcats then forced back-to-back Longhorns punts — their first of the game — before allowing a field goal at the 14:54 mark of the fourth quarter. Those three points proved to be the only ones K-State allowed in the second half.
Texas had just 114 yards in the game's final two periods, as the Wildcats defense played much more like the team that held Oklahoma State off the scoreboard last week.
“Where they were really hurting us was their unbalanced set, and we aligned differently to it,” Klieman said. “We were probably a little more aggressive with our safeties. … I thought we did a nice job of trying to stay on top of really fast guys. We tackled better. We kept playing. We stayed in the fight. That was something that I was proud of. Nobody wants to be down 31-10 at halftime, but our guys stayed in the fight and it showed me a lot of character and resolve in those guys.”
Huggins said the halftime adjustments were both schematic and mental, and that the defense’s ability to flip the script so dramatically in the second half was a positive despite the loss.
“We got punched in the mouth in that first half,” Huggins said. “It wasn’t pretty, really, on either side of the ball. I think it just speaks volumes about this program to be able to kind of step back for a second, reset and come back and play a pretty good second half.”
“It just shows that we’ve got a good group of guys that are willing to keep fighting,” Green added. “We understood that we needed to be better, and it was on us to be better. The coaches did a good job making adjustments in the second half. We just played a better second half, and that’s what we needed to do.”
The Longhorns rolled up 466 total yards in the game and averaged 6.6 yards per play. Robinson finished with 206 yards rushing on 30 carries, while Ewers threw for 197 yards passing.
Safety Kobe Savage and Huggins led K-State with eight tackles each, while Hayes had seven and linebacker Austin Moore and defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah each had six.
It was the first game this season in which the Wildcats did not record a sack.
“First, we’ve got to soak this in,” Green said of the team’s response to the loss. “...Lessons come out of losses, too. We’ve got to look at how we can be better as individuals and as a group, and come back Monday. (We have) 24 hours to soak this in, but then we’ve got to get back to work.”