Kansas State will lament its 24-20 home loss to West Virginia Saturday evening for a number of reasons, some bigger and more consequential than others, but especially because the Wildcats’ final drive — when they had a chance to win — ended when the hosts were doing most everything right.
K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson didn’t put enough on his last pass to senior receiver Dalton Schoen in the red zone, and it was intercepted. Game over. Just like that.
“I know that’s a throw I can make a lot of the time,” said Thompson, who completed 24 of 39 passes for 299 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. “Just missed today. It’s tough.”
But the reason it’s worth revisiting the drive, which K-State started at its own 8-yard line with 2:53 to play, is because it was going so well up to that point.
The Wildcats’ offense hadn’t had an exceedingly memorable game, but down four points with a shade under three minutes left, they were in position to stave off what turned into their worst loss of head coach Chris Klieman’s first season.
“If everyone just does their job,” K-State receiver Dalton Schoen said, “we’re going to be successful.”
Thompson completed his first two passes to running back Jordon Brown, the first for 10 yards and the second for five. Then, after an incompletion, he called his own number and rushed for 6 yards, good for a first down at the 23.
Two plays later, he found receiver Phillip Brooks for 11 yards and another first down. The Wildcats were at their own 40.
By then, the Wildcats were in a rhythm. Thompson was making good reads and better throws. Even more importantly: The penalties that had plagued the Wildcats earlier in the game were nowhere to be found.
That didn’t change. Thompson then tossed a pair of incompletions, and after a short completion to Brown for 4 yards, K-State faced a fourth-and-6 from its own 44.
Not to worry.
Thompson connected with Brown for 9 yards and a first down, moving the chains and setting up his team at West Virginia’s 47-yard line.
“You could just tell he was focused, No. 1,” Schoen said of Thompson. “He says what he always says: ‘Everyone just do their job.’”
Check and check. One play later, Thompson found Brooks for 15 yards.
Suddenly, the Wildcats were within striking distance, square at the Mountaineers’ 32 with 43 seconds to play.
The Wildcats’ next play, a 2-yard rush from Thompson, was relatively harmless. The one after that, a game-ending interception from Thompson, was anything but.
It was clear almost immediately that the throw didn’t have enough on it. Schoen was open — that much is indisputable — but he was out of place because Thompson’s throw didn’t find the mark.
West Virginia defensive back Hakeem Bailey leaped, snagged the ball in mid-air and came down with it.
For all intents and purposes, the Wildcats were done.
Here, though, is where Schoen sees both sides of things. Nothing with this much gravity is ever so simple as an underthrow.
“I talked to Skylar after the game. He said, ‘I make that throw 10 out of 10 times,’” Schoen said. “I agree with him. He’s on the run. He’s just got to put a little more on it, but at the same time, I could have run my route a little better. I’ve got to break up that ball.
“But you’re right there. We put together that tough, two-minute drive. I think we started at our own 8 or something like that. Drove down the field. We were in a position to win the game. We’ve just got to go do it.”
An important detail to note: Schoen said he was surprised at how much Cover 1 — meaning one safety and everyone else in man coverage — that West Virginia played. The Mountaineers, Schoen said, had mostly played Cover 3 and Cover 4 in the film the Wildcats watched.
West Virginia did that. Just not as much as K-State was expecting.
That had a number of effects, one of which has to do with the Wildcats’ rushing attack. Because the Mountaineers didn’t drop as many into zone coverage, they were able to play man and blitz more.
Did they ever. K-State accomplished little on the ground. Leading rusher James Gilbert, whose ankle injury prevented him from playing in his club’s previous two games, returned for 13 carries, 60 yards and a touchdown. He amassed more than half his yards with a 32-yard rush in the second frame.
Part of that involves Gilbert’s health — he said he’s about 85% healthy, and that he has some trouble running to the left side — but most of it involves the sheer amount of run blitzes the Mountaineers sprung.
The result: A limited K-State offense.
“We watched film. We knew what they (were) going to do,” Gilbert said. “We watched previous film on what they did to previous teams. They knew we’re a run team. There wasn’t no surprises at all.”
Still, the Wildcats adjusted. That’s part of why they were able to move the ball so well on their final drive.
The difference was one costly miscalculation on a drive where Thompson and Co. looked like mathematicians.
“You’ve got to call slightly different plays, and then run your routes a little bit differently,” Schoen said. “You’re going to have to be more physical at the top of your breaks. You’re probably going to have to lose a yard to come back and fight for that ball. And you’re going to have to run away — you’re not going to be sitting down in holes or anything. Some plays you’ll have a guy that it’s going to go to if it’s man, going to go to if it’s zone.”