Deuce Vaughn, Joe Ervin give Kansas State football's running game explosive one-two punch

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas State running back Joe Ervin (20) carries the ball against against Nevada during Saturday's game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

MANHATTAN — As much as Kansas State coach Chris Klieman would have loved to see the Wildcats diversify their offense last week against Nevada, he kept coming back to an old adage.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So, instead of putting the ball in the air simply for the sake of balance, the Wildcats continued to ground and pound to the tune of 269 rushing yards. The strategy not only resulted in three fourth-quarter touchdowns, but also kept Nevada's quick-strike offense off the field as Kansas State turned a tie game into a runaway 38-17 victory.

"The best defense for us was our offense on the field," Klieman said this week. "And when we were able to sustain some nice drives, which we did, it gave our (defensive) guys a chance to rest as well as it gave us a chance to make some adjustments."

And besides, the Wolf Pack had no answer for running backs Deuce Vaughn and Joe Ervin.

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"I feel like that was more just game flow and stuff," said Vaughn, the Wildcats' super sophomore, who finished with a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. "Offensive line, tight ends (and) fullbacks were getting such a great push at the line of scrimmage all game, so whenever we got out to run, we're picking up 6, 8, 10, 15 yards a pop.

"Man, we couldn't get away from it. Especially the way that Joe was running and Will (Howard at quarterback) was running as well. We were just really in a groove."

The Wildcats, who open Big 12 play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Oklahoma State, ran the ball 48 times against Nevada. They attempted just 13 passes, with Howard completing 7 of 10 for 123 yards and Jaren Lewis 2 of 3 for 6.

But Howard, starting in place of an injured Skylar Thompson, also ran 12 times for 56 yards and two touchdowns. And Ervin, a sophomore who opted out last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, also had a career high with 82 yards on just 11 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown run.

"I give credit to the guys up front," Ervin said of his success. "They played a great game and I just fed off their energy and just kept my legs moving."

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For Vaughn, the 100-yard game was his fifth straight dating back to last year, the longest such streak for K-State since All-American Darren Sproles did it in 2003. Vaughn also went over 1,000 yards for his career with the performance.

"That's 100% humbling, just to be mentioned in a sentence with Darren Sproles and to have a stat next to his name is 100% humbling, though of course I can't take credit for it," Vaughn said. "Man, whenever I go over 100 yards, whenever we rush for, say, 200 yards, that's the offensive line.

"The fullbacks and tight end up there and the wide receivers sustaining blocks down the field. All of us, we rush for 100 yards and we all rushed for 100 yards the past five games."

Perhaps so, but Vaughn may have had something to do with it as well.

"You hear him talk and he gives credit to everyone else, and I'm glad he does, but there are some plays that he makes that it's him making that play," center Noah Johnson said. "That's him making a dude just look foolish.

"And to that extent, I think Joe Ervin, we got our first real taste of Joe on Saturday and that's huge for our team, having another guy that can get in there and take some of that load off Deuce and kind of bring a change of pace. But it makes life a lot easier for the offensive line when you've got a guy like Deuce back there."

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With the 5-foot-6, 173-pound Vaughn and the 5-8, 175-pound Ervin sharing the workload, both have relatively fresh legs. It also takes some stress off Howard, who for the second straight year was thrust into a starting role after an injury to Thompson.

"It really is a big confidence booster for me when we're running the ball as good as we are," Howard said. "Because it takes some stress off me, and it takes the eyes off me sometimes when you've got Deuce running the inside zone as well as he is and I can pull it and get loose on the outside a little bit.

"It creates opportunities for other players and they can't guard all of us if we're all playing well."

And don't forget about Ervin.

"Joe is a player now," Vaughn said. "The electricity that he brings whenever he runs the football, the burst that he has, man, that's something that I've seen since he came back last year, and I'm so excited for him to show the nation that.

"Whenever he scored the touchdown, that was just straight burst — 20, 21 miles per hour, straight hitting it."

So who would win a footrace between the two? Vaughn or Ervin?

"I think he's got me. I'm quicker," Vaughn said with a smile. "We've come to an agreement. I'm quicker, he's faster, I would say.

"He can run. He's probably got me with the speed, but quickness I think I take him."