MANHATTAN — Welcome back Tyler Lockett. Glad to see you again Tramaine Thompson. That’s more like it Jake Waters.
No one could blame Kansas State football players for uttering those words following a 35-12 victory over West Virginia on Saturday. Not even Bill Snyder.
He understood the importance of this win. The Wildcats needed it so badly that he looked the other way when the team wildly celebrated in the locker room. Snyder is a coach who values tunnel vision. He doesn’t like his players looking past the next game and he asks them to keep every result in perspective. But after a difficult start to the season and after three straight conference losses, he allowed them to dream about what they can accomplish now that they are back to full strength.
"I just watched their reaction in the locker room and they were happy and spirited about it," Snyder said. "I had mixed emotions. I think they deserved the opportunity to celebrate and I am pleased they did what they needed to do to get the opportunity. We have always been a team that is act like you’ve been there before. It’s quite obvious they haven’t been there before. They needed it."
Thompson, a senior receiver who said he missed the past two games with mononucleosis, summed the team’s emotions up more simply: "It felt like we hadn’t won in a year. It feels really good to get back to this."
It wasn’t the prettiest game, but it might be exactly what Kansas State needs to get its season back on track and to keep those good vibes rolling the rest of the way. Its remaining schedule, with three home games and a trip to struggling Kansas, is hardly daunting. Up next is a home game it will be favored in against Iowa State. The Wildcats (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) might soon be back at .500 and on their way to bowl eligibility.
The key, of course, will be maintaining the execution they showed during the second half on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium.
The first half was a mess for both teams, and West Virginia took a 9-7 lead into the locker room. K-State’s two-quarterback system, aside from a 35-yard pass from Waters to Lockett, was producing mostly punts and turnovers. And things appeared bleak when West Virginia pulled ahead 12-7 early in the third quarter.
But the Wildcats, thanks to the return of their top two receivers, shrugged off a sluggish start to pound West Virginia (3-5, 1-4) in the second half.
That made one impressive box score.
Lockett, who missed the majority of the past two games while recovering from a hamstring injury, made big catch after big catch, finishing with 111 yards and three touchdowns. Thompson made three grabs for 53 yards and a touchdown. And Curry Sexton took advantage of a spread out defense to grab six passes for 112 yards.
Together, they made K-State’s quarterbacks look worthy of all-conference honors. Waters, who had played poorly in back-to-back games, looked like a new man. He came off the bench several times in the second half and completed 10 of 13 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Sams wasn’t shabby, either, completing all eight of his passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. In all, the Wildcats threw more touchdowns (4) than incomplete passes (3).
"Jake and Daniel were throwing the heck out of the ball," Sexton said. "They had three incompletions today. Jake got in there those third and fourth quarters and started spinning the ball. He was putting the ball in spots were you were forced to catch it. You had no choice."
The outing felt like redemption for Waters, Thompson and Lockett. K-State was a run-oriented team without them. But it was balanced on Saturday. It gained 448 yards, with 291 coming through the air and 157 coming on the ground.
They helped senior running back John Hubert rush for 86 yards and a touchdown and play one of his best games. Along with a strong defensive effort that held West Virginia to 367 yards, K-State looked strong in all areas.
"As a quarterback that is what you want," Waters said. "You want those guys who can go deep and just outrun guys. When you have guys like that out there in Tyler and Tramaine you have all the confidence in the world in them that they are going to go make a play … that’s what makes me go. That’s what I want to do. To get guys like Tyler and Tramaine back was huge for us."
Their biggest contribution might have been giving their teammates the confidence to close out a game.
K-State has blown fourth-quarter leads in three games, and when it trailed 12-7 late in the third quarter there was no guarantee it would leave this game with a victory. But momentum seemed to shift when Sams found Lockett at the back of the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:16 remaining in the third quarter. The pass came on a third-and-goal from the 9, and the catch gave K-State a much-needed boost in confidence.
The Wildcats went on to dominate the fourth quarter.
"Credit Kansas State, especially in the second half for coming out and taking it to us," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "… We came out and got outcoached and outplayed on all three sides of the ball."
After that kind of effort, the they got to walk off the field with smiles on their faces for the first time since mid September, hopeful about what comes next.
“It has been a long time since we all got a win,” Lockett said. “It was very great to be able to celebrate it like that and I think that as long as we remember exactly what we did between Monday and Friday I think we could do a lot of good things, especially with the games we have left.”