Kansas State football vs. Oklahoma State report card: Not a good night for the Wildcats

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

STILLWATER, Okla. — Kansas State picked a bad night to struggle on both offense and defense against an energized Oklahoma State team opening Big 12 play at home.

The Cowboys scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and got another score from their defense on the way to a 31-point first half — their highest point total of the season — while K-State's offense was unable to build on a promising drive to start the game.

OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders threw for 344 yards and running back Jaylen had 123 yards rushing while the Cowboy defense never let K-State's offense get comfortable.

Here are the grades from K-State's 31-20 loss to the Cowboys:

Offense: K-State run game grinds to a halt

Sep 25, 2021; Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State's Jaylen Warren (7) runs the ball against the Kansas State Wildcats in the second quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State's only sustained drive — 68 yards in 13 plays over six minutes — came on the first possession of the game and still only produced three points.

Most alarming was the lack of a rushing attack, which produced just 62 yards as Oklahoma State limited Deuce Vaughn to 22 yards on 13 carries with his longest run going for 7 yards. Vaughn had been over 100 yards in each game this season and five straight dating back to last year.

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With starting quarterback Skylar Thompson still out and Will Howard suffering an injury that kept him from running effectively, it was left to third-stringer Jaren Lewis to gamely carry on. He did produce the Wildcats' lone offensive touchdown when he stepped up in the pocket to avoid a sack and found Deuce Vaughn, who turned it into a 55-yard score.

Vaughn was targeted seven times out of the backfield and led K-State with five catches for 73 yards with 68 yards coming after the catch.

Howard (4 for 12, 50 yards) and Lewis (10 for 19, 148) were a combined 14 of 31 passing for 198 yards with an interception. Lewis also was sacked twice.

A backbreaker came after Oklahoma State scored to go up 14-10 and the Wildcats' kickoff return backed them up at their own 7-yard line. On the next play, Howard was unable to handle a low snap and fumbled it into the end zone, where the Cowboys recovered.

When the Wildcat defense finally shut OSU down in the second half, the offense was unable to cash in, managing just 80 yards total offense after the break, with 55 coming on Vaughn's catch and run.

Grade: D

Defense: Too little, too late

K-State's defense simply looked lost the entire first half, giving up 295 yards and 24 points — the other Oklahoma State score came from its defense — as quarterback Spencer Sanders got on an early roll.

The fact that the Cowboys produced their season high point total before intermission says it all. Sanders completed 11 of 15 passes for 194 yards and a pair of touchdowns, plus ran for another in the half, while Jaylen Warren had 79 rushing yards at the break.

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"We couldn't get our footing," K-State coach Chris Klieman said of the slow start. "We couldn't slow the game down enough, whatever you want to say, and we just couldn't get a stop."

The fact that middle linebacker Daniel Green was ejected in the second quarter for targeting — his second disqualification in four games — didn't help matters, though backup Nick Allen had the best game of his career with 10 tackles as K-State shut Oklahoma State out in the second half.

OSU did manage 186 yards over the last two quarters, but missed field goals of 48 and 49 yards kept the Cowboys off the board. Oklahoma State's 481 yards were the most allowed by K-State, which held both Stanford and Southern Illinois under 300 yards and gave up 331 last week against Nevada.

In addition to missing Green for the second half, the Wildcats were without safety Reggie Stubblefield, who was injured and did not make the trip. They also lost defensive end Khalid Duke for the season in the Nevada game.

"We played really well in the second half, but you have to play for four quarters," Klieman said of the defense. "We've got to keep learning and see how people are attacking us."

Grade: C- 

Special teams: Kicking and return game missing no more

It took four games, and in the end it wasn't enough, but K-State finally got some meaningful production from the special teams, most notably in the return game where Malik Knowles brought a kickoff back 99 yards to give the Wildcats a short-lived 10-7 lead.

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The only miscue came on Knowles' next kickoff return when he took the ball out of the end zone instead of settling for a touchback and was stopped at the 7-yard line, which led to a fumble and Oklahoma State defensive touchdown on the next play.

Throw in field goals of 35 and 45 yards by Taiten Winkel without a miss and a productive night by punter Ty Zentner — 49.9-yard average on seven kicks with three pinning Oklahoma State inside the 20 — and it was easily the best special teams performance of the season.

"I thought Ty kicked the ball exceptionally well (and) punted the ball really well," Klieman said. "We had the big return, Taiten had a couple of field goals. We had one poor kickoff coverage we've got to shore up, but I thought our coverage was much better."

Grade: A-

Coaching: Not the K-State staff's finest hour

Chris Klieman and his staff got high marks the first three weeks for finding ways to win.

That magic touch eluded them from the start against Oklahoma State, especially on defense, where the Cowboys made K-State look lost for most of the first half.

Spencer Sanders carved the Wildcats up in the passing game, throwing for 194 yards in the first half and 344 for the game. The Cowboys also had 101 rushing yards before intermission.

On the other side, Courtney Messingham's offense looked good on the game's opening possession, but had to settle for a field goal and never sustained another drive the rest of the way.

"We didn't coach well enough today," Klieman said. "We've got to come up with better schemes and better plans on both sides of the ball."

The one encouraging sign was the defense's performance in the second half, which suggests that the staff made the necessary adjustments. But by that time it was too late.

Grade: D