This looked familiar.
Kansas State began its new football season the same way it ended its last one, displaying enough grit and moxie to compete against a ranked opponent on the road while lacking the poise and playmaking skills needed to win.
Stanford defeated K-State 26-13 Friday night at Stanford Stadium, outclassing the Wildcats early and crushing their hopes late.
The final score was closer than some expected, with K-State fighting back and making things interesting against the nation’s No. 8 team after falling behind 17-0 in the second quarter. But that meant little to Bill Snyder and his players. They spent months building toward this game, working to prove last season and their 6-7 record was a fluke. Then they took the field and looked much the same.
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“None of us feel like we played well on offense,” quarterback Jesse Ertz said. “Our defense gave us as many opportunities as we could ask for to take the game. I think we are all disappointed.”
Things appeared most similar to last season in the third quarter, when Ertz exited the game with leg cramps. Backup Joe Hubener replaced him and threw an interception on his first play. Unlike last season, Ertz returned after drinking water, but not without splitting snaps with Hubener and running back Charles Jones.
The results were predictably erratic. K-State’s offense looked capable at times, especially on the ground, and gave itself scoring opportunities. But the Wildcats were feeble through the air and had to settle mostly for field goals. Kicker Matthew McCrane made two and missed another.
Their lone touchdown came after the game was all but out of reach on a 15-yard pass from Ertz to freshman Isaiah Zuber. It was an impressive grab for the freshman receiver, made against tight coverage in the corner of the end zone. K-State needed more like it.
It wasn’t nearly enough to beat a top-10 team on the road, even with the defense standing up to Stanford’s potent offense and star running back Christian McCaffrey, who just happened to ice the game on a 41-yard touchdown drive moments after Zuber’s touchdown.
“There was just absolutely no consistency with us offensively,” Snyder said. “There were a couple drives where we ran the ball reasonably well, but we struggled most of the night to run the ball. Obviously we were not extremely effective throwing the football for a variety of different reasons.”
The biggest reason: Ertz looked timid. Playing for the first time since going down with a season-ending knee injury in his first start, he took few chances. His go-to play was a scramble, even when he had time to throw. At one point, he looked at top receiver Byron Pringle in the corner of the end zone and debated whether to attempt the pass. Pringle was open, but it was a difficult throw. Ertz pump faked, ran to his left and then decided to throw to Pringle. By then, he was triple covered.
Pringle was thought to be K-State’s top playmaker this season, but Ertz only got him the ball once for 14 yards.
Ertz showed promise extending plays with his legs and on designed runs, but he was not sharp throwing, tossing an interception and taking a safety in the fourth quarter — perhaps the most fitting play of the game. It took him a while to find his rhythm.
“By the end of the second quarter I was feeling settled in,” Ertz said. “I really didn’t feel that nervous, I just had to get a feel for the game and start to see things better.”
Ertz ended up completing 16 of 34 passes for 207 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also ran for 20 yards on 13 attempts.
“He hit some struggles,” Snyder said. “Part of it was self initiated and part of it was he hit some (plays) in the second half where everybody knew where he was going to throw it, and the defenders were back, and created some problems for him. But it was a mixed bag.”
The same could be said for K-State’s entire roster. The Wildcats started slow and were unable to catch up.
Stanford scored on its opening three drives to take a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter and looked like a superior team.
The Cardinal dominated the Wildcats in methodical fashion, completing all 10 of its passes in the first half for 135 yards and a touchdown while possessing the ball for more than 19 minutes. Stanford was especially effective on third down, converting five of seven attempts during that time.
“The first half was stellar,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We were very, very good.”
It was frustrating early for K-State’s defense. Every time it got a stop, Stanford made up for it with a long pass. The Wildcats didn’t break up a throw until the third quarter. Most concerning, Stanford moved the chains with an inexperienced quarterback. Ryan Burns, making his first start, looked like a star in the making, completing 14 of 18 passes for 156 yards. His most explosive play came on the opening snap of the second quarter. After faking a pitch to McCaffrey, he connected with receiver Michael Rector for a 40-yard score.
All eyes were on McCaffrey before the game, and he produced highlight moments, including touchdown runs of 35 and 41 yards, as well as an incredible 97-yard punt return that would have resulted in another touchdown if not for an illegal block.
But K-State’s defense mostly held him in check otherwise, limiting him to 126 rushing yards on 22 attempts. Not bad, considering the numbers he’s put up in the past.
“We did a good job against him,” defensive end Jordan Willis said. “If you look at the stats and take out the two or three big runs he had ... Those were critical check-call mistakes. If a check-call would have been made somebody would have been in the gap and they wouldn’t have happened. I don’t feel like we got dominated.”
Indeed, the Wildcats did enough on defense; they simply didn’t have enough offense.
Perhaps that will change as the season progresses. Stanford is a national championship contender. Not every game will be this difficult.
For now, though, the Wildcats don’t look far removed from where they were a year ago.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett