No one can say Kansas State’s impressive start is the byproduct of an easy schedule. Not anymore. Not after the Wildcats defeated Mississippi State 31-24 in front of thousands of maroon-clad fans shaking cowbells on a sweltering Saturday afternoon at Davis Wade Stadium.
K-State did more than validate its first two blowout victories by passing its first true test under Chris Klieman, it made a statement to anyone who pays attention to college football.
“I don’t think a lot of people felt like we could come in here and do this,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Mittie said. “We are a different team this year. I hope the Big 12 recognizes that and I think they will. Going on the road and beating a SEC team like this should put people on notice.”
It’s certainly getting harder to doubt the Wildcats after they gutted out this game with a series of clutch plays and gave Klieman his first signature victory as K-State coach.
This was K-State’s first nonconference road victory over a power-conference opponent since 2011 and its first-ever road win over a SEC team. At 3-0, the Wildcats can begin to dream a little bit. Their ninth-place projection in the Big 12 preseason poll seems wrong. Perhaps they can finish in the top half of the conference standings or push for even more.
If they can win here with players cramping and mistakes mounting against a team that throttled them a year ago in Manhattan, why not? Bigger things seem possible.
“You can’t go off last year,” senior running back James Gilbert said. “This is a new Kansas State football team. We have got a lot of talent, veteran guys and young guys. I feel like if we all keep working hard and building chemistry, the sky is the limit. The Big 12 has something to look out for.”
K-State won this game in dramatic fashion. The Wildcats found themselves trailing for the first time all season late in the third quarter, but rallied behind big plays from Malik Knowles, Skylar Thompson, Dalton Schoen and a defense that didn’t blink when Bulldogs quarterback Garrett Shrader literally tried to hurdle three players with the game on the line.
Knowles got the comeback started when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats suffered through a number of special-teams miscues in the first three quarters, so no one was expecting a game-changing play at that moment, but Knowles provided a spark when his team needed one by following his blockers up the left side of the field and then zooming through a seam for a highlight touchdown.
His score tied the game at 24-24. Nine minutes later, Thompson found Schoen in the end zone with a 15-yard pass that served as the game’s decisive score.
Mississippi State hadn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points since the 2017 season, but K-State managed four touchdowns and a field goal while averaging 5.1 yards per play.
Thompson beamed with pride afterward. He briefly had to leave the game in the second quarter when his entire body began to cramp up in the 90-degree heat. Backup Nick Ast finished off the second quarter while Thompson hydrated with an IV in the locker room. He felt “terrible” throughout the third quarter, but there was no way he was missing the end of this game.
He told his teammates before the game that this was their opportunity to “put K-State back on the map.” And he wanted to follow through. He finished with 123 passing yards and a touchdown.
“That’s one of the best moments playing football I have had in my entire life,” Thompson said. “You can tell how much everyone loves each other and wants to win for each other. It says a lot about our football team.”
This game also showed K-State’s evolution under Klieman. His fingerprints were all over this game.
Under Bill Snyder, the Wildcats won games by controlling time of possession and limiting mistakes. They followed a different formula here. K-State lost three fumbles and committed some unfortunate penalties that Mississippi State capitalized on throughout the day. Without them, this game might not have been close.
But K-State never panicked and found a way to overcome those errors.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Klieman said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. We were going to face a bunch of adversity, and that’s what we talked about all week long. Attack the adversity that you face. Don’t panic, keep believing in each other, rise up and make plays when you have the opportunity.”
K-State’s mistakes were easy to notice.
Mississippi State scored its first touchdown of the day after the Wildcats’ Jordon Brown fumbled a punt at midfield. The Bulldogs found the end zone again late in the first half following an unnecessary-roughness penalty against defensive back Wayne Jones.
The Wildcats thoroughly outplayed the Bulldogs in the first half, but they only led 17-14.
Sticking with the theme of capitalizing on K-State’s mistakes, the Bulldogs took their first lead of the day with 4:47 remaining in the third quarter when Wildcats defensive back A.J. Parker lost a fumble at the end of an interception return.
Had he held on to the ball, K-State would have taken over with excellent field position. Instead, the Bulldogs switched quarterbacks from Tommy Stevens to Shrader, and he led them on a sustained touchdown drive.
Three K-State mistakes. Three Mississippi State touchdowns. Just like that, the Wildcats were trailing 21-17. And Mississippi State tacked on a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter following a fumble from K-State’s Seth Porter.
The Bulldogs had momentum and home field. Not a good combination for a K-State comeback. But the Wildcats kept fighting and made it happen. Then they held on when they had to, sending Shrader flying like a helicopter when he tried to leap his way to a first down at the end of a desperation scramble on fourth-and-16.
They made their statement.
“We showed we can hang with anybody,” Thompson said. “They were bigger, probably faster and stronger than us, but we established the run game early on and we showed we can play with anybody. We all believed that. It was just time to go show the world and the country what we could do.”