With the victory already well in hand, it would have been easy to call on kicker Blake Lynch. Or punter Devin Anctil. But up 31-0, and facing a fourth-and-3 at Bowling Green’s 34-yard line, Kansas State elected to roll the dice Saturday.
It was the right decision.
Quarterback Skylar Thompson lofted a perfectly placed pass to Malik Knowles for a 34-yard score. After Lynch’s point-after attempt was true, the Wildcats led 38-0, an advantage they took into halftime. They went on to win 52-0, posting their first shutout in more than four years.
During his postgame press conference, K-State head coach Chris Klieman said the fourth-down call wasn’t a spur of the moment judgment. On the contrary. Before the Wildcats lined up on third-and-5, they called a timeout. In the midst of this discussion, they reached a conclusion: If they didn’t pick up a first down, they’d eschew a punt or field goal attempt in favor of extending the drive.
It came down to Klieman’s unshakeable belief in Thompson.
“With Skylar, (we were) just putting the game in his hands,” Klieman said, “and saying, ‘Hey, we trust you. Go win it.’ He played really well.”
Klieman and Kansas State’s offensive coaching staff had two questions for Thompson before the play.
What’s your best call? What do you like the most?
Based off coverages the Falcons had shown to that point, the initial plan called for a quick out route right at the first-down marker. But two possessions earlier, Knowles approached Thompson.
“He was like, ‘I can beat this guy on a fade route,’” Thompson recalled Knowles saying. “We share dialogue all the time about what we’re seeing, so I kept that in mind. He had a great release and I just gave him a shot.”
Knowles described how the play unfolded from his perspective.
“My job was just to clear it out to make sure that we could get to the sticks,” he said. “The corner pressed up (and) Skylar saw that it was a one-on-one matchup. He trusted me and threw the ball to me.”
For Knowles, who led all players in catches (five), receiving yards (99) and receiving touchdowns (two), Saturday provided redemption. In the opener against Nicholls, he had an opportunity for two scores; he didn’t haul in either.
“It’s truly a relief just getting back on the field, doing stuff that I’m used to,” said Knowles, a redshirt freshman who had 10 receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns last season. “I really can’t dwell on it, so I just had to move forward, try just not to make it (more than it is). Just freeze frame the ball, make sure every ball is caught.”
Klieman said he was pleased Thompson never lost faith in Knowles despite some of the miscues in Week 1.
“(Thompson) saw a press corner and said, ‘We’re going to take a shot with Malik,’” Klieman said. “Really, really excited for Malik to play as well as he did with some unbelievable catches.”
Klieman wasn’t the only person on the K-State sideline who noticed.
“On that fourth-and-3, he’s supposed to throw that out (route) on our side of the field,” senior defensive tackle Trey Dishon said. “But this is something, as a defensive guy, I’m watching. But ... he throws it down to Malik, fourth-and-3, touchdown. Big play. It’s stuff like that — guys making decisions like that? That’s a dog.”
Dishon said he “loved” the offense’s aggressiveness. When he’s not on the field, Dishon said he constantly watches Klieman making in-game decisions.
“We don’t want to punt. If we’re on the 40, we want to take the long field goal, or if it’s fourth-and-3, we’re going for it,” Dishon said. “I love that about him because it shows how much he trusts us — and I don’t even play offense. But I think the offense on that fourth-and-3, (they hear), ‘Let’s go for it,’ and they get the trust from him. It goes well.”
Starting running back James Gilbert didn’t disagree. The willingness to go for fourth-down conversions, he said, is a shot in the arm.
“That just shows how much the coaches have confidence in us to get the job done, believing in all 11 guys,” said Gilbert, who posted his second 100-yard rushing effort in as many games. “It’s a group effort. It’s not a one-man thing.”
Thompson put it simply: The fourth-down call is an example of the mindset Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham have instilled in the unit. That’s why Thompson said he wasn’t startled the Wildcats went for it.
“That’s his mentality. He’s talked time and time again about, ‘Don’t be surprised if we go for it on fourth down,’” Thompson said. “So I wasn’t surprised by it. I was just trying to execute to the best of my ability — and for my team as well — in the huddle. We were aware of the situation. We knew that when we get on our side of the 50, it’s time to kick it up a notch and go score.”
The Wildcats haven’t had any problems putting points on the board through two games. But Thompson admitted the fourth-down strike to Knowles carried extra meaning that had nothing to do with numbers.
It saved him sitting through a lively lecture from the coaching staff.
“It was a pretty risky deal. I’m glad I completed it,” he said. “I probably would have heard it in more ways than one if I didn’t. But it was a great, great, great play. Malik ran a great route.”