Saturday was supposed to represent a myriad of things for Kansas State’s football program. A semblance of normalcy, playing a game in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (even if attendance was capped at 25% because of said pandemic). A chance for players and coaches to get the bitter taste of their last game out of their mouths, more than eight months since falling by three points to Navy in the final seconds of the Liberty Bowl. An opportunity to showcase the talent of its newcomers — hello, Deuce Vaughn and Briley Moore — and the gains made by their returnees — here’s looking at you, Skylar Thompson.
It just wasn’t supposed to include a loss.
Especially not to an Arkansas State squad that entered as a double-digit underdog coming off a loss last week at Memphis.
The Red Wolves apparently didn’t receive the memo they were supposed to be a patsy for the Wildcats, as the Sun Belt Conference opponent stunned the hosts, scoring a go-ahead touchdown with 38 seconds remaining to leave Bill Snyder Family Stadium with a 35-31 win in tow.
“It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “We didn’t play particularly well. I know what the guys have gone through the last month to five weeks, trying to prepare to play. We can’t make excuses. The guys who played, we’re counting on to play and have success and make plays when they have opportunities.”
The game’s hero was Jonathan Adams, the Red Wolves’ star senior receiver. He hauled in the game-winning 17-yard reception, one of three touchdowns for him on the day. The three scores were a game high, as were his eight catches; his 98 receiving yards matched another game best, alongside K-State’s Chabastin Taylor.
Klieman didn’t mince words: Adams “was too good” for the Wildcats’ (0-1) secondary on this day.
“A couple of times, we had our back to the football and didn’t turn back and make a play,” Klieman said. “On two of the touchdowns that he had, we had good vision on him and he went over the top of us and made a play. And then the last play, we were trying to double him and we kind of fell off of coverage, and you can’t do that against a really good player. Give that kid credit: He’s a phenomenal player. We need to be better.”
Adams said little about his performance afterward, more focused on enjoying the win itself and praising others.
“Defense stepped up and did a good job. Offense did a good job, ran the ball well,” said Adams, who starred at Jonesboro High in Jonesboro, Ark., the same town where Arkansas State’s campus is located. “That opens up the passing game and we made the plays we needed to make.”
Humble as he might have been, Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson didn’t mind lavishing praise on Adams, calling him “one of the best” players he’s ever coached as well as one of his “absolute favorite kids.” He views Adams almost like a member of his own family.
And according to Anderson, Adams wasn’t even at peak health Saturday.
“But you wouldn’t know it,” he said. “He put a brace on it and didn’t miss a series last week. A lot of guys would miss two or three games with what he’s going through. But he just can not stand to miss this competition, and if you put him in a one-on-one situation, there is no 50-50 ball with that guy. It’s about 80-20 (in his favor) regardless of who you put on him. He’s so physical and has a 40-plus vertical. ... That’s the game he likes to play, and it benefited us today when we needed it most, because he is so powerful at the catch point. Guys can be hanging on him and he is still able to control it.”
The result itself was a toss-up, too, even after Adams’ final touchdown catch,.
K-State just didn’t capitalize.
Starting their last drive at their own 37-yard line, the Wildcats quickly picked up 19 yards following a 14-yard pass to Taylor and a 5-yard reception by Harry Trotter.
From there, the Wildcats’ offense bogged down.
It started with a 6-yard loss by Thompson, brought down on a sack by linebacker Fred Hervey. Thompson then heaved a long pass downfield toward Phillip Brooks, which fell incomplete. Though the Red Wolves (1-1) helped the Wildcats on the play thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — giving K-State 15 yards — it still left the hosts 40 yards away from the end zone.
Thompson’s final throw sailed over Brooks’ head — a toss well short of the goal line.
“I thought we left some plays out there,” said Thompson, who threw for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 17-of-29 passing. “There are three or four that I can think of that were just inches off, man, or I missed a throw or misjudged on a ball and just couldn’t get on the same page there a couple times. But all things considered, I thought we made some good plays, but we just didn’t make enough today. Sometimes that’s just part of it. We’ve just got to learn from it and move on.”
Entering Saturday, the Red Wolves only had one win over a Power 5 opponent since joining the FBS in 1992. That came in 2008, when they beat then-Big 12 school Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. After that victory at Kyle Field, they lost 20 straight games against Power 5 foes ... until Saturday, that is.
And at least at the onset, it appeared Kansas State might run that streak to 21. The Wildcats, as they so often do, came up with a key play on special teams on the first possession of the game, as redshirt freshman defensive back Will Jones blocked an Arkansas State punt. The hosts’ first drive of the season started just 19 yards away from the end zone.
Just 51 seconds later, the Wildcats crossed the goal line: Thompson threaded a perfectly placed pass to Brooks for a 17-yard score.
Not even a minute and a half into the 2020 campaign, and K-State led 7-0.
But Arkansas State brushed it off and immediately responded, scoring a touchdown of their own — two, actually — on the very next drive. The first “score” was an incredible one-handed grab by Adams. After a review, however, the touchdown came off the board after officials ruled it wasn’t a catch.
“The catch they overturned is one of the best catches I have ever seen,” Anderson said.
Arkansas State went right back to Adams on the next play, and this time, it was a no-doubt touchdown. Following a successful point-after touchdown, the Red Wolves leveled the score at 7.
After trading punts the next three possessions, Jones came up big again — this time on defense instead of special teams. Jones picked off Arkansas State quarterback Logan Bonner at the Red Wolves’ 49-yard line.
The Wildcats then picked up yardage in chunks.
A 24-yard reception by Vaughn. A 12-yard reception by Taylor. A 10-yard rush by Thompson.
The drive ended in opposite fashion, though: a short, 3-yard rush by Vaughn, who scooted across the goal line for the first touchdown of his career, putting K-State back on top 14-7 following Blake Lynch’s PAT.
Another player scored the first touchdown of his K-State career on the subsequent possession: Moore, a graduate transfer tight end, hauled in a 7-yard pass from Thompson, his childhood friend. That score ballooned K-State’s lead to 21-7.
But then the Red Wolves took control, ripping off 21 unanswered points — a trio of touchdown passes, one to Adams, another to tight end Amos Giles and a third to wideout Rashauud Paul, with two scores aided by trick plays (passes by wide receivers) — to move ahead 28-21 at the 11:49 mark of the fourth quarter.
K-State responded by scoring the next 10 points, which would have been enough for a win if not for Adams’ deciding score.
The Red Wolves were better in every area, from total yards (489 to 374), passing yards (330 to 283) and rushing yards (159 to 91). They also committed half as many penalties (four for 58 yards, compared to eight for 85 yards for the Wildcats) as the hosts. Arkansas State even overcame losing the turnover battle 2-0 — and that’s not even accounting for the blocked punt.
Not that K-State didn’t have some built-in excuses.
Numerous players sat out, including a pair of key receivers in Wykeen Gill and Joshua Youngblood. They lost three more starters (center Noah Johnson, free safety Jahron McPherson and strong safety Wayne Jones) during the game. There also was the muted home-field advantage, with just 11,041 fans filing in — the fewest to attend a K-State home game since 1988 ... yes, the year before Bill Snyder’s first season.
Yet, as bitterly disappointed as he was to lose an opener for only the second time in his eight years as a college head coach — his North Dakota State squad lost its 2015 opener, 38-35, to Montana State before winning 13 of its next 14 games, including his second FCS national championship in as many years — Klieman didn’t lose sight of reality. All week, he said, he battled nerves, unsure if Saturday’s game even would go on as scheduled given how COVID-19 already has postponed other games across the country. He finally started to feel more at ease at 5 p.m. Friday, with the Red Wolves’ bus chugging northward.
It’s a gift he stressed to his players not to take for granted.
“I told them, ‘Guys, be blessed that we have the opportunity. Be thankful for the people who gave us this opportunity,’” he said.
Then he turned his gaze toward the future.
“We will be better. I know we will be a better football team as the season goes on,” Klieman said. “I’m not happy with the performance today. None of our guys are.”