STARKVILLE, Miss. — As Kansas State’s defense lined up in a Cover-2 formation on fourth-and-16 late in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State Saturday, it had two objectives.
Protect the sticks. Protect the end zone.
Finding no receivers open, Bulldog quarterback Garrett Shrader took off in a last-ditch effort to keep his team’s hopes alive. Elijah Sullivan kept his eyes on him the whole time.
“I was just kind of watching him, seeing what he was going to do,” said Sullivan, a senior linebacker for Kansas State.
With Shrader closing in on the marker, Sullivan and K-State cornerback AJ Parker swarmed to stop the true freshman signal-caller in his tracks.
“It didn’t look like he was going to go low,” Sullivan said, “so I said, ‘All right, we’re going to see what we have.’”
What happened next shocked Sullivan, Parker and everyone else in attendance at Davis Wade Stadium.
Shrader went airborne.
“I was like, ‘He jumped? That’s gonna hurt when he lands,’” Parker said with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t know why he did, but he jumped and me and 3, we hit him.”
The combined force of Parker and Sullivan’s tackle sent Shrader helicoptering in the air, his body levitating above the playing surface — NBC’s Sunday Night Football estimated Shrader was 9 feet off the ground at his highest point — before landing on his back.
A yard short of the first down.
As the play quickly went viral on social media, one of its protagonists hadn’t a clue.
“I didn’t know he went that high, because I hit him and he kind of went over my head and then 3 (Sullivan) hit him and all I heard was ‘Oooh,’” Parker said. “Then I turned around and he was short. So I didn’t really know what happened. Everybody on the sideline was like, ‘Bro, did you see how high he got?’ I was like, ‘I didn’t see anything.’”
James Gilbert was trying to compartmentalize what he saw while balancing what it meant for K-State’s chances at holding on for the 31-24 victory.
“I was on the opposite sideline and I was like, ‘Wow, I really just saw that?’” said Gilbert, a graduate transfer who has started all three games at running back for the Wildcats this fall. “In my head I’m like, ‘He didn’t get the first down.’ I’m trying to make sure he’s OK, but I’m like, ‘I know he didn’t get the first down. I know he didn’t get it.’”
K-State’s defense had to halt the hosts one final time on a possession that began with 30 seconds remaining and the Bulldogs out of timeouts. Half a minute of game time later, the Wildcats walked away winners.
Afterward, much of the talk centered on Shrader — and the admiration he earned from his opponents.
“Oh man, I’ve got a ton of respect for him to jump up and try to go get that, because I don’t know a lot of people who would put their body on the line for their team like that,” Parker said. “So I’ve got a lot of respect for that freshman to come out and try to get that first down.”
Gilbert obviously was happy Shrader didn’t convert. But as a competitor, he tipped his cap his adversary.
“You always like to see people put extra effort to get the extra yards and move the chains, whether it’s on our team or not,” he said. “That’s just football in general. You like seeing stuff like that because it’s why you want to play college football: to make plays like that.”
Denzel Goolsby wasn’t surprised Shrader made such an aggressive decision. A senior safety for K-State, Goolsby said it was a testament to what he saw on film from Mississippi State: It was a team that wasn’t going to give up until the final play.
Even if that meant trying a high-risk maneuver.
“He definitely sacrificed his body. He put it all on the line,” Goolsby said. “You’ve definitely got to appreciate a guy who does that. A lot of quarterbacks would have dived or lowered their shoulder or got out of bounds, so for him to try to jump and go over the top, he was leaving it all out there.”