It would be difficult to script a more appropriate ending to Kansas State’s football season than what transpired at the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday at Chase Field.
K-State defeated UCLA 35-17, giving the Wildcats back-to-back bowl victories for the first time since 2001, and it did so in a way that mirrored the team’s journey here.
The Wildcats got off a bad start — horrible really — and looked outmanned and outcoached against the Bruins. Not good, considering UCLA was playing for an interim coaching staff without star quarterback Josh Rosen. Many thought K-State would dominate this game, but it fell behind 17-7 at half. Much like a 3-4 opening record, K-State wasn’t playing up to expectations.
But it got things turned around and appeared dominant throughout the second half. K-State even pulled off a 98-yard touchdown drive to ice the game. That improvement was sparked by a quarterback change.
Alex Delton, playing in his first game since Nov. 4, breathed much-needed life into an offense that appeared stagnant behind starter Skylar Thompson. His influence was obvious from the moment he entered the game, as he took a keeper 68 yards for a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage.
He went to rush for 158 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, leading the Wildcats to a season-high 344 rushing yards. Running back Alex Barnes was also effective, rushing for 117 yards and a score.
The result moved K-State to 8-5 and dropped UCLA to 6-7.
This was an ideal matchup for Delton. UCLA has one of the nation’s worst run defenses and entered the game allowing an average of 282.7 yards this season.
He took advantage. He just needed an opportunity. Thompson earned the right to start the bowl after guiding K-State to a 4-1 finish that included come-from-behind victories over Iowa State and Texas Tech on top of an unexpected win at Oklahoma State. But he is more of a passer than a runner.
Delton began the season ahead of Thompson on the depth chart and remained there until he was sidelined with multiple concussions. He missed K-State’s final three games, but returned with a vengeance.
It will be fascinating to see how Delton and Thompson play throughout the offseason. K-State will have a QB competition on its hands.
Delton, with the help of a fumble strip/recovery by Denzel Goolsby, swung this game K-State’s way with his legs.
The Wildcats needed a jolt. At halftime, they appeared doomed.
The first half went about as well as it possibly could for UCLA.
The Bruins came out looking like a team that contended for a Pac-12 championship, instead of a squad that fired its coach and needed a victory in its final regular season to get here.
Devon Modster looked every bit as good as usual starter Josh Rosen, completing 10 of 15 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns while the Bruins possessed the ball for 14 minutes, 2 seconds. He finished with 295 passing yards.
His first big play went to receiver Jordan Lasley on a screen pass to his left. Lasley caught the ball in the flats and zoomed up field for a 52-yard touchdown with the help of excellent blocking.
The scoring strike gave the Bruins a 10-7 lead and put pressure on the Wildcats to respond.
They couldn’t. UCLA forced a quick punt and scored on another long pass the next time it touched the ball. On that drive, Modster found receiver Theo Howard deep for a 70-yard bomb. Howard got deep against coverage from Duke Shelley and Eli Walker. He managed to get 15 yards behind them and was able to slow down as the pass approached.
UCLA led 17-7, but it felt like more.
Aside from a 68-yard touchdown run from Delton (the longest rushing play in K-State bowl history) the Wildcats got little going early. Nick Walsh punted three times, and the half came to an end on a sack at midfield. There were about 30 seconds remaining when Delton went to the ground, but K-State was unable to run another play.
The half ended with Delton yelling at the sideline in frustration and a smattering of boos from the K-State fans in attendance.
Then everything changed.
K-State made big adjustments on defense and played much improved in the second half. UCLA could do little with its traditional offense, resorting to trick plays just to move the ball across midfield. The Bruins didn’t score in the second half, and Goolsby helped build momentum by coming up with a turnover moments after Delton pulled K-State to within 17-14 on a quarterback sneak.
Delton then hit Dominique Heath on a screen pass for a seven-yard touchdown to give K-State a 21-17 lead. It never looked back, with Barnes and Delton each scoring late touchdowns.
By no means a perfect game for K-State, but it ended in ideal fashion.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett