In the belly of Kansas State’s team hotel Friday night, quarterback Skylar Thompson decided he wanted to deliver a message to his team. The next day, K-State was set to host TCU, and the Wildcats were coming off two straight losses. A third could hamper the team’s season in a lasting way.
So Thompson left his teammates with a vote of confidence.
“‘I’m going to be ready for four quarters tomorrow,’” Thompson told his team. “‘I’m going to bring it, and lead with the best of my ability. Stick with me, and believe in me.’”
When the sun rose Saturday and the fourth quarter arrived, with K-State and TCU knotted at 17-17 late in the fourth, Thompson trotted out onto the field prepared to lead his group on a game-winning drive — starting at its own 5-yard line.
“‘Trust me and believe in me,’” Thomspon told the huddle. “‘Trust in one another and believe in one another. We’ve got to a play going, get in a rhythm, and we’ll be fine.’”
All that trust and belief did wonders for the Wildcats. He led the group on a 95-yard, game-winning drive that ended when Thompson plunged into the end zone from 3 yards out, sealing K-State’s 24-17 win over TCU and breathing new life into a program that some had declared dead.
That, in part, is why the drive itself bears revisiting. In its last two games, K-State logged just 13 points in a loss at Oklahoma State and 12 in a loss to Baylor. The Wildcats’ offense was treading mud, Thompson included.
All that changed Saturday. Thompson completed 11 of 23 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried 10 times for 68 yards and a score.
“Skylar continues to impress me,” K-State coach Chris Klieman said, “and I just love the kid because he’s such a competitor.”
First play of the drive: A 5-yard completion from Thompson to wide receiver Malik Knowles, whose injury has prevented him from playing a complete game in more than a month. Important for the drive’s sake, but also because of what Knowles brings to the offense.
Knowles is a deep threat the defense must respect, which in turn opens things up for other receivers and gives Thompson more options, even if it isn’t Knowles.
“There was no time limit on it,” Knowles said of the playing time anticipated Saturday. “I started getting worked in and picked it up from there.”
The second play of the drive was the most visually striking. Thompson dropped back on a designed quarterback run and saw a gaping hole in front of him. He took it and ran 61 yards, all the way down to the TCU 29-yard line.
In two plays, K-State moved 66 yards and within striking distance of a win.
“They gave us the look we thought we were going to get all week,” Thompson said.
K-State followed Thompson’s game-changing rush with a pair of negative plays. First, running back James Gilbert lost a yard. Then, Thompson’s pass to Gilbert on the left side fell incomplete.
K-State faced third-and-11 from the TCU 30.
That’s when one of the Wildcats’ seldom-used receivers made the play of his career. Thompson hit sophomore wideout Chabastin Taylor for 10 yards, a sigh of relief for K-State — but it wasn’t enough. The Wildcats still had a yard to go on fourth down.
Basically, the game.
“I’m calling the play,” Thompson said, “and Tyler Mitchell’s telling me that he loves me. Scott Frantz is telling (people) he loves them. Everybody’s in the huddle telling everybody that we love each other. It’s fourth-and-1 — this game’s on the line. That’s what’s going on.”
Thompson took a keeper around the right side and bowled over a defender, good for 2 yards and a first down.
The drive continued.
“I was expecting that defensive line to play more down the line of scrimmage, but he checked me on the boot,” Thompson said. “I was able to get outside of him and make a play for my team. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
K-State’s next two plays were less spectacular. On the next, Thompson fired off a hurried pass that fell incomplete. After that, another rushing play didn’t work. Gilbert picked up a yard.
That meant another critical situation: third-and-9.
So Thompson went back to the well: Knowles, who ran what he called a “mesh route” over the middle and scooted forward for a few more. First down.
The Wildcats had a first-and-goal from the 7.
“Coming from the back side, I was looking at what the linebackers were going to do,” Knowles said. “He dropped out. Skylar has always harped in practice — once we’re past the first linebacker, get our eyes around. So I (caught) it, and I tried to turn up as fast as possible.”
Then, after running back Harry Trotter picked up 4 yards on the ground, K-State had second-and-goal from the 3. So Thompson lined up in the shotgun. He was calling his own number.
It worked to perfection. He strolled untouched into the end zone, handing his team a 24-17 lead with a shade under three minutes to play.
In a matter of 5:18 of game time, Thompson had accomplished exactly what he said he “lives for.” A game-winning drive in a high-pressure situation.
“I love to be under the gun, under pressure in those situations,” Thompson said. “That’s what I worked for my whole life: to be in situations like that, to deliver for my teammates. That’s all the work behind closed doors that people don’t see, with our receivers and with this O-line. All the stuff we’ve done this summer to be prepared for situations like that.”