Players lock hands for a moment of unity as fans cheer. The Kansas State Wildcats faced off against Arkansas State wolves on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Arkansas State beat Kansas State 35 to 31.

Kansas State players amd coaches lock hands for a moment of unity as fans cheer prior to Saturday’s game against Arkansas State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The Red Wolves beat the Wildcats 35-31.

Editor’s note: In the first of a weekly, season-long series, Mercury sports editor and Kansas State beat writer Ryan Black will offer a trio of thoughts on the Wildcat football team’s latest game. The most recent was Saturday’s opener, which K-State lost to Arkansas State 35-31 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Putting things in perspective

No team ever will play flawless football. Particularly in an opener. This K-State squad had even greater justification for faux pas given that it didn’t have a chance to hold a single practice this spring. (Another casualty of the coronavirus.) Those 15 sessions likely would have done wonders for an offensive line that had to replace all five starters from the 2019 campaign.

Throw in all the COVID-related chaos — from those who tested positive and (obviously) missed the game to those held out because they were close contacts — and it was all but certain the Wildcats would have their share of miscues Saturday. They were without a pair of receivers from the two-deep depth chart in Wykeen Gill and return man extraordinaire Joshua Youngblood. Sophomore defensive end Khalid Duke, who had drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates during preseason camp, was sidelined as well.

Oh, and the offensive line? Starting center Noah Johnson, the new leader of the unit, hurt his wrist during the game, forcing the group to reshuffle the lineup. Two more starters, nickelback Jahron McPherson and strong safety Wayne Jones, also exited the loss with injuries.

The only problem with those excuses? Arkansas State had to battle many of the same issues.

Yes, the Red Wolves at least had a handful of spring practices before the rest were canceled by the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. in the middle of March. And yes, they already had one game under their belts (a 37-24 loss at Memphis on Sept. 5) prior to arriving in Manhattan.

But according to ASU beat writer George Stoia III, who covers the team for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the Red Wolves were missing 13 members of their two deep Saturday, including a whopping nine starters. Yet they still persevered to pull the four-point upset.

While K-State’s roster lacked its usual depth Saturday, the bottom line is there isn’t a way to explain around losing to a Sun Belt Conference team down that many starters — even if the foe regularly is among the best Group of 5 programs around.

Speaking of which ...

Consider the opponent

This isn’t double talk. K-State shouldn’t have lost to Arkansas State Saturday. You don’t pay a six-figure guarantee to a smaller school for them to come into your own stadium and eat your lunch.

But keep in mind that the Red Wolves aren’t a team awed by playing Power 5 schools. Yes, they had lost 20 consecutive matchups against Power 5 foes dating to 2008, when they topped Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.

Yet what Arkansas State represents is a program accustomed to winning. The Red Wolves have won seven or more games each of the last nine years (2011-19); they’ve also earned bowl berths each of those nine years. They’ve never had a losing campaign under seventh-year head coach Blake Anderson, who picked up his 48th victory at the school Saturday. They’ve won five of the last nine Sun Belt Conference titles, earning it alone in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 and claiming a piece of it in 2016 alongside Appalachian State.

And the Red Wolves once were a “cradle of coaches” in the 2010s: Three consecutive coaches turned one-year, conference-championship-winning tenures into jobs at bigger schools. Hugh Freeze went to Ole Miss after capturing the Sun Belt in 2011, Gus Malzahn accomplished the feat in 2012 and left for Auburn and Bryan Harsin completed the hat trick in 2013 before departing for Boise State.

“But Ryan, Arkansas State already lost to Memphis this year! Why couldn’t K-State do the same?” you ask, irritatedly.

The truth is, Memphis likely would beat K-State right now, too. The Tigers are ranked No. 16 — trailing only Cincinnati (No. 13) and Central Florida (No. 14) among Group of 5 schools — in the latest Associated Press poll for a reason.

If K-State wanted a no-sweat opener, schedule no-doubt cupcakes. (Like Missouri State, a team which had won just 13 games the past five seasons entering Saturday and promptly was pounded by Oklahoma 48-0. Or Eastern Kentucky, a program still looking to recapture the glory it once had under legendary head coach Roy Kidd, that West Virginia sent home with a 56-10 loss Saturday.)

To be sure, easier opponents were out there than the pesky Red Wolves.

The Wildcats found that out the hard way Saturday.

Glimpses of the future

The news wasn’t all bad for the Wildcats, however, especially as it pertains to its underclassmen.

Before Wayne Jones’ injury — one that, thankfully, turned out to look a lot scarier than it ultimately was, as he later announced he only had a concussion and “some other minor things” — he had recovered a fumble and tallied six tackles, tied for a team high. He’s a sophomore.

Will Jones II, no relation to Wayne, had blocked a punt and intercepted a pass. He’s a redshirt freshman.

In fact, half of K-State’s top-six tacklers Saturday have two more years of eligibility remaining: Wayne Jones, third-year sophomore linebacker Daniel Green and third-year sophomore defensive back Lance Robinson.

On offense, the bright spots shined every bit, if not (in one specific case) more, brilliantly.

True freshman quarterback Will Howard came on at the end of the third quarter with Skylar Thompson banged up. After ASU linebacker Justin Rice rocked Howard for a loss on Play 1, he came back the very next play and delivered a 24-yard strike to fullback Jax Dineen. Afterward, K-State head coach Chris Klieman praised Howard’s ability to shake off a negative play so quickly and respond with a top-flight throw one snap later.

And Howard didn’t even take “top true freshman” honors Saturday.

That accolade goes to running back Deuce Vaughn, who led the Wildcats in rushing yards (47 on 12 carries) and scored his first career college touchdown in the second quarter. During Klieman’s time on the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday, he called Vaughn “the best player on the field for us” against the Red Wolves.

While a win might be hard to come by before the end of the month — K-State does open Big 12 play Sept. 26 at the colossus that is Oklahoma — there should be plenty more victories in the future as long as Howard and Vaughn are suiting up for the Wildcats.

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