Friday marked the beginning of Jesse Ertz’s fourth season at Kansas State, a lengthy time span in which he has often been the Wildcats’ best practice quarterback.
He dominated behind closed doors a year ago and was named starter heading into the opener. Same thing happened this year. Put Ertz in a green, no-contact jersey across from K-State defenders and good things happen.
But it may be a while before the same can be said of Ertz in a live game.
That much was obvious in the aftermath of Stanford’s 26-13 victory over K-State. Ertz got off to a slow start and appeared flustered, completing 16 of 34 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and an interception. He was making his first start since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament last year, seeing extended action for the first time, and it showed. This was different than practice.
“You try and simulate that stuff with scouts, but it’s not the same,” Ertz said. “(Stanford) did a lot of stuff we expected, but it is a lot harder to see out there. We made a lot of mistakes and hurt ourselves.”
K-State’s offense was ineffective against Stanford’s defense in all areas, but the Wildcats struggled most when they tried to throw. Other than a fourth quarter touchdown pass of 15 yards from Ertz to Isaiah Zuber, which came too late to matter, the Wildcats were feeble through the air.
Ertz was often hesitant to throw and spent much of the game scrambling, even when he had protection. He said it took him until the start of the third quarter to settle in and get a feel for the speed of the game. He was frustrated early, but showed progress late.
His numbers in the fourth quarter: 134 yards and a touchdown.
“We know there is a lot to learn from it with a lot of guys making their first starts,” Ertz said. “I think we felt a lot more comfortable in the second half than the first half, just a little jitters and then things slowed down for us.”
Even then, nothing came easy. Ertz had to exit the game in the third quarter with leg cramps, needing IV fluids before he could return. He had to split time with Joe Hubener for a few series, but there appears to be no quarterback controversy.
The Wildcats remain confident in Ertz.
“I was happy with what I saw,” K-State running back Charles Jones said. “I feel like he can definitely build on what he did.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder described Ertz’s game as a mixed bag.
“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.”
That was best illustrated by Ertz’s many failed attempts to connect with Byron Pringle, K-State’s top receiver. Ertz and Pringle were billed as a dynamic quarterback/receiver duo capable of leading the Wildcats out of the doldrums they encountered a year ago.
Ertz represents an upgrade at quarterback and newcomer Pringle is thought to be the most explosive playmaker on the team. The more they hook up, the better off K-State will be.
That logic may prove to be true, but it didn’t pay dividends Friday. Ertz and Pringle didn’t connect a single time. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. Ertz targeted Pringle 10 times, and Pringle was unable to corral any of the 10. His only catch came from Hubener in the third quarter, a 14-yard gain.
Ertz and Pringle nearly connected on a deep ball in the first half when Pringle separated from his defender and got his hands on a pass thrown above his head, but he couldn’t hold on. On two other throws, Pringle was the victim of physical coverage that could have been called pass interference.
Still, quarterback and receiver never appeared on the same page. At one point, Ertz spotted Pringle open in the end zone but waited until he was triple-covered to throw. At another, Ertz threw a short pass to the sideline, expecting Pringle to run an out route. Instead, Pringle ran a post route. They missed each other by 50 yards.
The hope is next game will feel more like practice.
“It’s the first game of the year and a lot of people are making their first start,” Ertz said. “Everyone felt a lot more comfortable in the second half.… We all feel good about the management going forward. We will improve execution and all those things.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett