Kansas State’s winning streak over Kansas continued, but its recent dominance in the Sunflower Showdown was put to the test on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium.
The Wildcats trailed much of the way and needed a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the Jayhawks 21-17 on a chilly afternoon in front of 50,062 fans.
It began in the final minutes when K-State took over at midfield with 5:02 remaining following a KU punt. Running back Alex Barnes converted a fourth-down run, Dalton Schoen made a huge catch for 28 yards up the left side and then quarterback Alex Delton broke free for a touchdown run of 21 yards.
Just like that, K-State was suddenly in control of a game that previously seemed to be teetering toward KU.
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The Jayhawks still had an opportunity to win on their final drive and moved across midfield, but KU quarterback Peyton Bender lost control of his final pass attempt and fumbled the ball. K-State defensive end Bronson Massie recovered the fumble and the Wildcats held on for victory.
It was a much-needed win for K-State (4-6, 2-5 Big 12) and a heart-wrenching loss for KU (3-7, 1-6).
“It’s huge given where we’re at in the season right now,” Schoen said. “It’s also huge because it’s KU, and I think that just means so much more to all of the guys on this team, all the guys from the state of Kansas, and all these fans. It was big for that.”
K-State has now won 10 straight in this rivalry. KU coach David Beaty, who will not be retained next season, will exit the Sunflower Showdown with an 0-4 mark against the Wildcats.
“Obviously, it was meaningful in a variety of different ways,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said, “in particular because of young players that we have in our program, Kansas youngsters for instance, seniors that have never lost this particular ball game and wouldn’t want to be the first to do it. It has a variety of different positive meanings.”
Still, this was an ugly game.
Snyder said the Wildcats were fortunate to escape with victory, but certainly deserved to win.
Despite what the box score says, in reality, there weren’t many winners among those who attended the annual rivalry.
These two programs combined to hit a new low with their performance. It went from a first half of embarrassing offenses to a second-half of cover-your-eyes blunders, making it must-see only in the aspect that one couldn’t predict the sort of absurdity that was coming next.
K-State, known historically for its special teams, failed to recover the second-half kickoff, ran into KU’s kickers twice, muffed a punt with a rookie return man and and dropped a hold on a field-goal attempt.
“We’ve got to do a better job of understanding where to be, and that’s coaching,” Snyder said. “That’s not the players, that’s me being able to get guys in the right position to be able to catch those. And playing back there with the young guy that hasn’t really been back there before, so we certainly can’t fault him.”
The Wildcats, building a program on power football, couldn’t muster a few inches on a fourth-and-short quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter. That seemed like it would be significant as well.
But KU somehow made even more mistakes.
Pooka Williams fumbled a kickoff return. Two huge KU fourth-quarter runs were wiped away by holding penalties. And on the second one, tight end Mavin Saunders temporarily lost his mind, picking up an official’s flag and tossing it, stepping on it to pretend hide it, then kicking it after his call to draw another penalty: unsportsmanlike conduct.
“It was a back-and-forth game there in the second half and they did what exactly they needed to do to make enough plays to win it and we were not able to do that,” Beaty said. “That’s unfortunate, because I felt like we had a pretty good showing for most of the day, but that’s why you play all four quarters, every minute of each one of them. Got a lot of growth that we still have yet to do, and when we do that, we’ll start benefiting ... but we just weren’t able to get it done today.”
KU led 3-0 at halftime, but K-State scored the game’s first touchdown early in the third quarter.
The Wildcats marched 64 plays on five plays and went ahead 7-3 on a 24-yard run from Alex Barnes.
At the time, it felt like that might be all the points K-State would need to win a low-scoring Sunflower Showdown. But the game changed radically from there. Both teams shifted into overdrive and exchanged touchdowns the rest of the way.
Kansas scored its first touchdown on the ensuing drive when Peyton Bender led the Jayhawks into the red zone and then found Jeremiah Booker for nine yards. Just like that, it led 10-7.
But K-State answered right back with a touchdown drive of its own that was capped by Barnes’ second scoring run of the day. The Wildcats led 14-10 with 2:57 remaining in the third quarter.
Once again, the Wildcats appeared in control. And, once again, that feeling was short-lived. The Jayhawks jumped back ahead on the opening play of the fourth quarter when Bender found Steven Sims open across the middle for 65 yards and a touchdown.
“We felt like they could not stop us all game,” Sims said. “It was just us handling our jobs and executing our offense. Making routine plays. A throw and catch, running ahead and getting a tough five yards. Things like that. It felt good but we came up short. We have to fix it and come back better next week.”
The Jayhawks nearly pulled off one of their first road conference victory since 2008, but the Wildcats stayed poised at home and won with their fourth-quarter heroics.