Welcome back, Alex Delton.
See you next spring, Skylar Thompson.
Hello, quarterback competition.
It’s never too early to wonder who Kansas State’s starting QB will be next year. K-State put the finishing touches on an 8-5 campaign by thumping UCLA 35-17 on Tuesday at the Cactus Bowl, a game that capped a furious string of late wins and helped make up for a disappointing string of early losses, but all eyes are already on the future of the team’s most important position.
Delton was that good against the Bruins.
Considered an afterthought in the minds of many K-State fans after Thompson led the Wildcats to come-from-behind victories over Texas Tech and Iowa State, as well as a season-altering win at Oklahoma State, Delton returned to center stage and ran with a vengeance, totaling 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns on his way to offensive MVP honors.
Delton sprinted for a 68-yard touchdown on his first touch, he drove the pile forward for a touchdown at the goal line in the third quarter, he hit Dominique Heath in stride for a seven-yard touchdown shortly after and he led the Wildcats on a 98-yard drive to ice things in the fourth quarter.
Thompson started the game, but Delton finished it.
“He had 105 yards rushing at halftime,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “We’ve never had 105 yards rushing. Don’t ask me how stupid I am. You go with what brung ya, right? Not that Skylar wasn’t doing a good job, but … The proof is in the pudding. He ran it well.”
Delton deserves credit for keeping himself ready for this moment. A sophomore from Hays, he began the season behind Jesse Ertz and started four straight games after Ertz went down with a season-ending knee injury. But then Delton was sidelined with multiple concussions. He hadn’t played since Nov. 4.
Thompson, a redshirt freshman, took over for him against Texas Tech and good things happened. He earned the right to start the Cactus Bowl, even with Delton healthy and ready to return. But Delton kept pushing.
“I haven’t seen the field in quite some time, but I practiced fully in our bowl preparation,” Delton said. “And I felt confident with everything we were doing, with our game plan and I took this as if it was a normal week.
“Due to previous injuries, I was unable to play early in the season. But I trusted our coaches, trusted our teammates, and my number was called. I just did the best of my ability.”
Indeed, he took advantage when his opportunity arrived.
“Alex came in to see me earlier. He was concerned about whether or not he was going to have an opportunity to get on the field,” Snyder said. “He wasn’t begging for a spot – he was just saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready.’ And I assured him at that time that he would play a major role in the outcome of this ballgame and in the ballgame itself. And fortunately enough, he did.”
Question is: can Delton duplicate this type of game against other opponents?
He certainly has the skills to win K-State’s full-time job, but this was a dream matchup for him. UCLA is terrible against the run. The Bruins entered the Cactus Bowl allowing an average of 282.7 yards on the ground, a number that ranked next to last nationally.
Delton got 20 carries, and, well, any talented runner is going to put up numbers with a big workload against that defense. Running back Alex Barnes had 118 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Justin Silmon averaged 6.5 yards per run. Receiver Isaiah Zuber broke free for 37 yards on a reverse.
Not to take anything away from Delton’s career outing, but he might have it tougher next September when K-State opens the 2018 season against South Dakota.
Delton was the answer for one game, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the choice for next season. That decision should come down to who gives the Wildcats their best chance of winning long-term.
At the rate K-State quarterbacks get hurt, there’s a decent chance both end up playing next year. Still, it seems wise to commit to one as the definitive starter, so Snyder will have a difficult choice on his hands if he returns as coach (he reiterated Tuesday he hasn’t made up his mind on the possibility of retirement).
For now, it’s a good problem to have.
“We have confidence in both our quarterbacks,” Zuber said. “Both of them can run the ball. Both of them can throw the ball. It is going to be a great competition come spring.”
It already is.
Thompson has the stronger arm and the longer resume. Without him, K-State would not have played in a bowl.
Delton has the better ground game and the most recent statement. Without him, K-State might not have won the Cactus Bowl.
“It has been a roller-coaster year for me,” Delton said. “But I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons this season. I think I’ve learned more about myself than I ever have and I’m fortunate for that … Anytime you can lead a team to victory it builds confidence.”
Was the Cactus Bowl the beginning of the Delton era? Is Thompson the future?
These are questions that will be asked with great frequency over the next seven months.
As one season ends, a quarterback competition begins.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett