Kansas State football got one step closer to a berth in the Big 12 Championship game Saturday, knocking off a feisty West Virginia team 48-31 in Morgantown.
The win was the 100th of Chris Klieman’s career and the fourth road win of the season, tying a school record set during the 2012 season.
The game started with a shootout as the two teams combined for 66 points and 550 yards in the first half and one punt and ended with two touchdowns scored in a quiet second half.
K-State (8-3, 5-2 in Big 12 play) opened the game by winning the coin toss and taking the ball. The Wildcats marched down the field in five plays, capping a 69-yard drive with a 15-yard Deuce Vaughn touchdown run to jump out 7-0.
Then, on West Virginia’s first offensive drive, starting sophomore quarterback Garrett Greene, who earned the starting spot for the Mountaineers (4-7, 2-6) after leading West Virginia to a win over Oklahoma the week prior, was picked off by senior strong safety Cincere Mason who returned it 37 yards for a score.
Mason left the game with an injury midway through the second quarter and did not return for the rest of the game. Klieman did not have an update on his status after the game.
Then, West Virginia had its turn.
A 26-yard touchdown pass from Greene to wide receiver Sam James, his first of three in the game, wrapped up an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
Greene was tenacious throughout the entire evening, ending the game with 204 yards on 15-of-27 passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions to go along with 17 yards rushing on 12 carries and a score.
That rushing total would’ve been much higher, but three sacks from junior defensive end Brenden Mott kept the talented dual-threat sophomore at bay.
“I just keep working on the pass rush, trying different things,” Mott said. “Working on the game inside of the game. I mean you’re setting up the tackle. It’s just so detailed, if you just keep working and if you keep doing that, I guess sometimes it’ll go your way.”
Mott led all Wildcat players with eight total tackles.
Howard came out and tried to respond but threw a ball late into tight coverage which was picked off by West Virginia’s Malachi Ruffin and returned 43 yards for a touchdown that would’ve tied the game up if the Mountaineer Casey Legg didn’t miss the extra point.
“I know that this team is so good at handling adversity and bouncing back from it and being able to stay neutral,” Howard said. “You know, that’s kind of our our motto, we want we want to always stay neutral. And I think we really did a good job of that today. In every game, not everything’s going to go perfect. Obviously I want that play back for myself. That was not was a good play by me. But at the end of the day, our ability to come back and put some more points on the board to just keep things rolling was huge.”
The wild first quarter continued with two more touchdowns from K-State.
On the third play of the next drive, freshman running back DJ Giddens broke free for a 49-yard touchdown run, the longest run of his short career, pushing the Wildcat lead to 21-13.
Giddens ended the game as K-State’s leading rusher, wrapping up the day with 78 yards on 12 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
“It was fun to see him pound it a little bit and he’s gaining more confidence,” Klieman said. “I thought he made a great run on the touchdown. (West Virginia’s defensive) front is really good. I think they’re really good up front on defense. And they made it they made it tough in there for us.”
K-State moved back ahead by two scores on their next drive. After turning West Virginia over on downs thanks in part to an athletic tackle from senior middle linebacker Daniel Green on fourth-and-short. The senior vaulted over the mass of humanity at the line of scrimmage to keep Greene from the one yard he needed for the conversion.
“We actually went over their short yardage plays during the week,” Green said. “In fourth-and-1, third-and-1, they like to run quarterback sneak. We got a certain play call and we got in and I went over top. So it was really fun.”
A 26-yard pass from Howard to Malik Knowles set up a 1-yard sneak for the junior quarterback after the Wildcats got the short field on their next drive, vaulting K-State ahead 28-13.
Howard was solid throughout, going 19-of-27 for 294 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He also ran four times for six yards and a score.
“Will was really good,” Klieman said. “He’s been under control. Happy for him to come back here after being here in 2020 as a freshman on a tough day. He was able to come back here, it’s close to home, he had a ton of family here and Will Howard is playing at a really high level. (He is) one of the one of the most improved players probably in college football and I can’t be more happy for the guy because he’s worked his tail off.”
West Virginia wasted no time responding, cashing in on a 71-yard throw from Greene to James. The extra point missed again, and the Wildcats’ lead was cut to 28-19.
“We gave up a couple explosive plays,” Klieman said of the first half defensive issues. “That’s for starters, and their kid made a couple of really good plays and (on the 71-yard touchdown), we probably didn’t get enough help over the top. And the other one, the guy just made a really good play. I just didn’t think we tackled well enough in the first half, bottom line.”
K-State and West Virginia would each score one last touchdown in the half.
Howard found tight end Ben Sinnott on a tough pitch-and-catch on the run from 15 yards out to jump ahead 35-19.
“(The throw) was awesome,” Sinnott said. “It was kind of a broken play a little bit. I was turned around, we locked eyes and I knew he was going to throw one there. It was a great ball. Perfect placement to allow me to get it.”
And then the Mountaineers responded right back by cashing in on the Greene and James connection for the third and final time in the half on a throw from five yards out.
James ended the day with 102 yards on just three catches, all of them for touchdowns.
West Virginia was unsuccessful on the two-point conversion, keeping K-State two-score lead intact, 35-25.
The Wildcats closed the half with two field goals from Ty Zentner, one from 46 yards out and the other from 53, to boost their advantage to 41-25 heading into the half.
Then the offensive barrage seemingly stopped.
West Virginia had a long drive to open the half, but it ended with a missed field goal.
Both teams traded punts following the miss until K-State turned the ball over on downs in the red zone, giving West Virginia the ball at their own 19.
Greene threw an interception, his second of the game, on the first play of the drive right into the hands of Julius Brents which got the Wildcats going.
After two plays, Howard found Knowles at the 32 and after avoiding a tackle right after the catch, he outran several West Virginia defenders on the way to end zone, stretching K-State’s lead to 48-25.
The senior wide receiver ended the game with 111 yards on six catches with 77 of those yards coming after the catch.
“(Knowles is) really strong after the catch,” Klieman said. “He’s hard to bring down ... I was happy for him getting that last touchdown because he fought to try to get in the end zone. I know he’s been trying to get in the end zone.”
The Mountaineers found the end zone one last time on a 13-yard keeper from Greene with nine and a half minutes to play, but they missed out on the two-point conversion again, and neither offense would score again before game’s end.
With the win, the Wildcats are just a victory over Kansas or a loss by Texas away from clinching a spot in the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington on December 3.
K-State will return home for senior day next week and host Kansas in the first primetime Sunflower Showdown matchup in Manhattan since 1982. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and it will be televised on FOX.
Klieman triggers automatic contract extension
Saturday’s win was worth a little more for Klieman as the four-year Wildcat head coach’s contract was extended by a year.
Per his contract, each time K-State reaches eight wins and makes a bowl game in a season, his contract is automatically extended by a year at $4.3 million.
He is eligible for that bonus up to two more times before his current contract expires in 2026.
Wildcat assistant coaches also will see their bonuses jump from 8% to 12% following the win.