Everything that enabled Kansas State to contend for a conference championship and live inside the national polls this season was present Friday at the Alamo Bowl.
The Wildcats fought for tough yards, came up with momentum-changing stops and provided vintage highlights for a national television audience.
Problem is they waited until the second half to do any of it.
The result was a 40-35 loss to UCLA that sent the vast majority of 60,517 fans at the Alamodome home disappointed.
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A 31-6 halftime deficit, the largest such hole the No. 11 Wildcats (9-4) have faced in a bowl game, ultimately proved too difficult to overcome, despite a furious second-half charge.
“The first half was awful all the way around. It was just a disaster,” said senior receiver Curry Sexton after catching 10 passes for 104 yards. “It was kind of a nightmare. We came in at halftime and it felt like the game was already over and we had been beat. … But guys put it in their mind that one play at a time we were going to come back and win the game.
“Truthfully, we feel like we could have won that game and possibly should have won that game.”
The Wildcats could make that argument after an inspired second half. They owned the third quarter, scoring 15 straight points, and possessing the ball for nearly 13 minutes. They outplayed the No. 14 Bruins (10-3) in the fourth quarter, converting every fourth down they went for. And they pulled as close as 40-35 with 1 minute, 21 seconds remaining on a touchdown pass from Jake Waters to Tyler Lockett.
The crowd was behind them, and momentum was in their favor. As they lined up for an onside kick, an unforgettable comeback felt within reach.
“We had heard a TV announcer indicate in another ballgame that a football team had quit,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “That’s the last thing in the world anybody wants to hear on national TV, I assure you that, and I reminded our youngsters of that, that we weren’t about to let somebody say that about us. And they didn’t. They didn’t. They made their best effort.”
Still, it wasn’t enough. UCLA recovered the onside kick and celebrated underneath falling confetti and balloons. Much like an earlier possession, in which UCLA running back Paul Perkins broke free for a 67-yard touchdown run up the gut of K-State’s defense for a 40-28 lead, the Bruins clung to victory.
Just like that, K-State’s comeback was over.
“We hung in there and I think that’s been a symbol of our team, the grit, the toughness, the character, all year,” UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. said. “We won 10 games this year with the toughest schedule in college football. We played 10 bowl teams, including Kansas State.”
The Wildcats will surely look back to their first-half woes more than a single defensive breakdown in the second half as the cause of this defeat.
Replays of the first half could serve as a how-to manual for future teams hoping to dominate, or avoid being dominated, in postseason games.
K-State appeared beaten from the opening kickoff, failing to play with energy, toughness or poise.
Its players committed costly penalties, including a Randall Evans hold that negated a Tyler Lockett touchdown on a punt return. Its players were mistake-prone, including Lockett failing to catch a pass in the end zone. And its players were overmatched, with right tackle Matt Kleinsorge surrendering so many sacks that he was benched.
“By my count we left 28 points on the field in the first half, and that’s our fault,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t anything other than that. UCLA is a very fine football team, played extremely well. They were just so much better than we were in the first half. The execution wasn’t there.”
The worst execution was on the offensive line, where weak protection led to Waters uncharacteristically being sacked seven times, causing him to hurry and lose two turnovers.
“They are great players,” Waters said. “They caused some problems for us.”
UCLA did so by looking perfectly loose, gathering on the turf as a team to celebrate every score, showing it was ready to embrace its time inside the Alamodome.
Quarterback Brett Hundley proved effective with his arm and his feet, throwing for 136 yards, rushing for 96 yards and accounting for three touchdowns. His 28-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-3 in the third quarter felt like a backbreaker, putting UCLA on top 17-0 before K-State could respond.
And Perkins was a force, rushing for 194 yards and two scores.
K-State deserves credit for adjusting and fighting back from there, though. The Wildcats opened the second half with center B.J. Finney lining up at right tackle and their offense unwilling to give in.
Snyder said he referenced a string of other bowl comebacks in the locker room, assuring his team it could still win, while senior defensive end Ryan Mueller gave a stirring speech.
Then K-State took the field and looked like a new team after getting outplayed in the first 30 minutes.
“We’re a team who never gives up,” Lockett said. “We’re a team who will always keep fighting until it says zero on the clock, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Indeed, they responded in vintage K-State fashion in the third quarter with a touchdown drive that lasted 17 plays and7:37 seconds, covering 75 yards. Waters, who threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns, found Lockett for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to make the score 31-14.
Then Mueller forced a fumble almost immediately on UCLA’s next drive and Dakorey Johnson recovered it to give K-State a real shot to get back in the game, scoring on a two-yard run from DeMarcus Robinson with 3:25 to go in the third quarter.
UCLA seized momentum back with a field goal, but K-State twice made it a one-score game.
Had some of that production come in the first half as well as the second, it might have been enough for K-State to win.
“We had a chance to come back,” Lockett said. “We made a great rally. Everybody saw it. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short.”