STARKVILLE, Miss. — After two weeks of stress-free, dominating victories, Chris Klieman peppered talks to his Kansas State team all week with the word “adversity,” which he expected the club would face for the first time this season Saturday. The talks centered around the same four points.
Attack the adversity that will come. Don’t panic. Keep believing in yourself and your teammates. And rise up and make a play when it presents itself.
The Wildcats dealt with the first point, and successfully employed the other three, in Saturday’s 31-24 victory Mississippi State on the road.
“There’s so many ebbs and flows in a football game, there’s so many momentum changes,” Klieman said. “You just have to flip the script and be ready to attack it when adversity does strike and capitalize on your momentum.”
For the third straight outing, the Wildcats started strong.
Mississippi State’s first four drives ended thusly: Punt, interception, punt, punt.
At that point, a little more than four minutes into the second quarter, the Wildcats led 10-0. They had outgained the hosts 139-44. They were ahead in time of possession (11:55 to 8:38). And they were winning the turnover battle. (If one doesn’t account for Mississippi State stopping K-State on downs on the first possession for the Wildcats.)
But the momentum swung in an instant.
Not even three minutes after he scored the game’s first touchdown, K-State running back Jordon Brown tried to field a punt. He fumbled it away, and nine plays later, Mississippi State drew within 10-7 after a 2-yard score by quarterback Tommy Stevens. Though K-State upped its advantage back to 17-7 with 46 seconds left before the half, a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing possession gave Mississippi State 15 extra yards.
The Bulldogs didn’t let the gift go to waste, with Stevens hitting Osiris Mitchell for a 35-yard touchdown and only nine seconds remaining in the second period.
Despite outclassing Mississippi State statistically in the game’s opening 30 minutes, K-State led just 17-14 at halftime.
“If you take away a few big plays — that big touchdown right before half they got — then we’re running away with it,” senior receiver Dalton Schoen said. “So it’s hard to reset, but you’ve really got to kind of lean on your leadership team, lean on everyone just banding together and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got you, I’ll pick you up,’ that kind of stuff and go out there and keep playing, keep making plays.”
Klieman kept a cool head in the locker room at the half, too.
“I didn’t emphasize the negative, really,” he said. “I didn’t want to.”
His optimism didn’t do much to stem the tide in the third quarter, however, with the Wildcats losing two more fumbles.
The first came from cornerback AJ Parker — immediately after picking off a pass from Stevens. That led to another touchdown for the Bulldogs, as well as a quarterback change. After two-plus quarters and a pair of interceptions, true freshman Garrett Shrader came on in relief of Stevens. He capped his first drive by running it in for a 5-yard score. The second fumble of the third stanza came courtesy of receiver Seth Porter, who misplayed a punt return in a vain attempt to field it. That led to a field goal, and a 24-17 lead, for the Bulldogs.
Despite the multiple miscues on special teams, Malik Knowles threw caution to the wind on the ensuing kickoff. Hauling the ball in with his back foot on the goal line, he decided to return it.
Senior safety Denzel Goolsby admitted worry set in.
“It was funny, because we were all on the sideline and it looked like he stuttered a little bit when he brought it out,” Goolsby said. “We were like, ‘Oh no.’ And then Malik just took off. The guy can fly, so with wheels like that, we need to use them. He’s always capable of making plays and I’m really happy that he took it out, because it worked out well for us.”
Very well. As in, touchdown. As in, tie game (24-24) once Blake Lynch’s extra point sailed through the uprights.
Knowles said it never crossed his mind to play it safe and simply take the touchback. All he cared about was not putting the offense in a bad position. And as the play unfolded, he started to realize he made the right decision to return it.
“As I hit the left and let my blockers clean out, I saw a big gap,” Knowles said, “and Dalton Schoen made a great block on the kicker and just opened it all up for me.”
The 100-yard kick return came one week after a career-best performance for Knowles, when he caught five passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns. In this case, he said, one equals two.
“It was just as good as last week’s performance. That one play alone turned the whole momentum of the game,” said Knowles, referring to Saturday’s return for a touchdown. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
K-State’s errors, while costly, didn’t lead to its first defeat of the season. Goolsby said part of that is because of the coaching style of Klieman and his staff.
“I think we just play looser,” he said. “Playing more loose allows us to bounce back easier after plays like that. I just think we know what we’re capable of, too, so that confidence (is), ‘OK, you can learn from your mistakes’ and then we go to the sideline, we talk things over and we all get on the same page.”
Schoen agreed. Simply put, he said “guys play a little less scared now” compared to years past.
“They’re less scared to make mistakes,” he said. “So when they do make mistakes, the team is really good about picking each other up. If someone on offense makes a mistake, the defense is over saying, ‘We got you.’”
That isn’t only true on gamedays or at practice, either.
“This group, we all love each other,” Schoen said. “I feel like people say that a lot of the time, but we really mean it. I think it’s so cool just how excited guys get for each other when other people make big plays — just the true passion everyone has for each other on the team is awesome.”
The confidence Klieman and his staff already have instilled emanated from James Gilbert afterward. A graduate transfer from Ball State, Gilbert has started all three games at running back for K-State this fall. Those flurry of plays that went against the team, particularly in the first half, didn’t bother him in the slightest. He was confident things would go the Wildcats’ way in the final 30 minutes.
His words proved prophetic.
“We knew we were better than this team. We knew we left some plays out there and made some mistakes,” Gilbert said. “But nobody pointed a finger. We all stayed together, stayed the course and just stayed with it. Coach Klieman got us all ready in the locker room and we came out in the second half and did what we had to do.”