MANHATTAN — His team had just won a football game by three touchdowns, and looked good for long portions of time doing it, but Kansas State coach Bill Snyder only wanted to talk about one thing late Saturday night.
No matter what else happened during K-State’s 48-27 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette, the Wildcats weren’t stable enough for his liking. Sure, the result was fine. It got them back on track following an opening loss to North Dakota State and fans went home in much higher spirits than last week. This was a step in the right direction for K-State.
But questions remain. They always do when a team looks dominant and in need of assistance in the same game.
"There were some things that were on the field that would allow you to believe we were better than last week," Snyder said. "But consistency wasn’t one of them, quite obviously. The game has to be played that way in the conference we are in.
"You can’t play a half or a quarter, three quarters or whatever the case may be. That’s the case. That’s been the case. We just do not have the consistency right now and the ability to play a solid four quarters."
The up-and-down nature of this game was most obvious in the third quarter. K-State brilliantly used two quarterbacks, an aggressive defense and stellar kick returns to cruise to a 34-3 lead early in the second half. Things were going swimmingly.
Then, all of the sudden, they weren’t. And K-State had to hold off a small-name opponent in the fourth quarter.
How did it happen? That’s a puzzle Snyder will spend the next two weeks trying to solve while the Wildcats try to ramp up their form in practice and against Massachusetts before starting Big 12 play on the road at Texas. Unbalanced play didn’t doom the Wildcats in front of 53,073 on Saturday, but it might against conference opponents.
"We took a pretty good step forward, but we still have a lot of ground to make up," junior center B.J. Finney said. "There is a lot of room to improve. We can’t stall out. We have got to be more consistent. We have to finish teams when the opportunity presents itself. We can’t sit back."
Improvements can come in many areas. Most of them seem minor.
If not for a lapse in focus, the Wildcats may have blown out the Ragin’ Cajuns in the second half the same way they did in the first. But, as it turned out, their worst play immediately followed their best.
K-State opened the third quarter with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from senior receiver Tramaine Thompson. The electrifying run, which started with Thompson catching a kick that was on its way out of bounds and featured smooth cuts up field, gave the Wildcats a 27-3 lead. K-State forced a punt on the ensuing possession, and Thompson returned it 61 yards to set up a Jake Waters touchdown run from the one.
"It was great for our team to see that we could do it if we really try," Thompson said. "Those guys did a great job up front on the kickoff return and the punt return. They had an amazing game tonight."
The Wildcats were on top 34-3, totally in control.
Less than two minutes later, that was no longer the case.
Louisiana-Lafayette answered with a 100-yard kickoff return from Darryl Surgent on the next play. Then Waters threw an ill-advised pass toward heavily-covered Torell Miller that was intercepted and gave the Ragin’ Cajuns a short field. They responded with a four-yard touchdown run from Terrance Broadway. Just like that, K-State’s lead was down to 34-17 with 8:07 remaining in the third quarter.
K-State then punted on its next possession, giving Louisiana-Lafayette the opportunity to pull even closer. The nerves that were present throughout this stadium last week suddenly returned until Ty Zimmerman intercepted a pass and took it 32 yards for a touchdown with 7:09 to go in the third quarter. But not even that sealed the game. Broadway hit Jamal Robinson for an 18-yard touchdown before the fourth quarter.
"If you take away the interception return, the kickoff return, and, basically, the punt return you would have a tie football game," said Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth. "We played a really good game against a really good football team."
The Wildcats couldn’t feel totally safe until Daniel Sams led them on a touchdown drive, which was capped with a short run from John Hubert, with 8:01 remaining to take a 48-27 lead.
"It was the letdown that comes with that," Snyder said. "You go back to last week and the same thing happened. We come out in the third quarter and score real quick a couple times. Then here they come. I understand that is somewhat human nature, but human nature doesn’t work on the football field."
On the encouraging side, Sams looked good whenever he came in for Waters. The sophomore quarterback, who earned increased playing time following a nice touchdown run in the first game, rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts. He also completed a pass for 27 yards.
His touchdown came on a 13-yard run in the first half, but he didn’t see much more action until the fourth quarter. Waters started the game by completing 20 of 25 passes for 250 yards in the first half. His favorite target was Tyler Lockett, who caught eight passes for 111 yards.
Outside of a pass that hit Miller in the hands, bounced high in the air and got intercepted, Waters was doing everything right.
Snyder’s two-quarterback system was working perfectly.
But Waters had a poor second half, and he finished with 278 yards and another interception.
"It starts with me not making stupid errors when we are backed up," Waters said. "We have to stop having that lack of focus. I guess that starts with me, too. It’s just making the plays that present themselves and going from there and taking what the defense gives you. That’s where I screwed up today."
Whoever plays quarterback will need the help of a steadier running game and a more consistent defense.
The rushing game, which managed just 41 yards in the opener, was better Saturday. Hubert rushed for 56 yards and two touchdowns. But they came on 18 attempts, and the offensive line was only so-so. Louisiana-Lafayette rushed for 177 yards, while K-State managed 143.
K-State’s defense was also up and down. The defensive line came through with a stronger pass rush, but the secondary had its lapses.
The Wildcats did enough right to win their first game of the season, but they could have done more.
"We left some points on the field," Sams said. "We have to get in the zone. It doesn’t matter how we do it. We just have to do it. We need to find our killer instinct. Sometimes we let our foot off the pedal."