MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — From the moment he hit the field for a two-snap sequence in Kansas State’s opener, quarterback Will Howard has played like a veteran.
Against West Virginia’s stout defense Saturday, Howard played more like one would expect for a freshman who, this time last year, still was in high school and starring for Downington High in Downington, Pa., four and a half hours away from Milan Puskar Stadium.
Howard threw an interception on the game’s opening possession. He threw another later in the quarter. And his final one on the day, in the third period, was returned for a touchdown.
Well aware that quarterbacks walk a fine line — earning too much praise after victories and too much criticism after losses — K-State head coach Chris Klieman forcefully defended Howard following the team’s 37-10 defeat.
“We’re for sure not going to hang this on Will Howard, because I think he’s continuing to improve,” Klieman said. “I thought he made some really good throws. We have to be better for him, and we have to be better with a lot of the things we’re doing offensively. We’ve got to block better. We’ve got to catch the ball better. We’ve got to do a lot of different things.”
Yes, Klieman said, there might have been a throw or two Howard wanted back; Klieman added “every quarterback in the country” goes through a similar dilemma every game.
Not that he expects the performance to rattle Howard.
“The one thing I’m not worried about is Will’s confidence — any of that stuff,” Klieman said of Howard, who completed 19 of his 37 passes (51%) for 184 yards and a touchdown along with the three interceptions. “Will’s got the ‘it factor.’ He’ll be just fine.”
Senior running back Harry Trotter said Howard is a cool customer. Following the pick-six, Trotter noticed Howard was “calm” on the sideline. When Howard faces more adversity in the future, Trotter said it’s on him, as a senior and a team leader, to keep the quarterback upbeat.
“Whenever you may see him down, give him a tap on the helmet (and say), ‘We’re behind you. It’s all good,’” Trotter said. “That’s the good thing about Will: He’s young, but he’s really mature for how old he is. He’s never going to get down because of one play or two plays. So that’s a good thing I really do like about Will.”
Nothing the Mountaineers threw at Howard, Klieman said, was new. In the secondary, they stuck with what’s made them one of the nation’s best defenses: zone coverage.
It’s the front four that gave the Wildcats fits.
“They run a bunch of stunts up front, some we picked up, some we didn’t pick up. And when we didn’t pick them up, they got guys in his face,” Klieman said. “And they broke on the ball extremely well. ... In that intermediate zone, (when) they would break on the ball and it would be their hands (right there) with our hands. They were aggressive. I thought they broke on the ball exceptionally well on the back end.”
It was just one of those days for Howard.
Such is life in college football.
“He’ll be fine,” Klieman said. “I’m not worried about Will. He’ll be all right.”