Kansas State football vs. West Virginia report card: How we graded the Wildcats' performance
MANHATTAN — Things could not have gone much better for Kansas State in the first half Saturday against West Virginia.
The Wildcats turned an interception off a receiver's hands into a short-field touchdown, had a West Virginia interception negated by a roughing-the-passer call, blocked a punt for a score and still led only 17-3 at intermission.
They extended the lead to three touchdowns with a score to open the second half, yet had to hang on in the end, which they did — thanks in large part to a gutsy fourth-down pass play from Skylar Thompson to Sammy Wheeler that helped seal the deal.
But bottom line, the Wildcats emerged with their fourth straight victory, ended a five-game losing streak against West Virginia and enter this week's home finale against Baylor on a roll.
Here are K-State's grades from Saturday's 34-17 victory over the Mountaineers:
Offense: A ho-hum performance, but one huge play
It was not a stellar day overall for the K-State offense, but all of that was forgotten with one memorable make-or-break play.
Skylar Thompson's 35-yard strike to Sammy Wheeler on fourth down and 8 with the Wildcats clinging to a tenuous 24-17 lead was a game changer. The completion, to the West Virginia 4-yard line, set up Deuce Vaughn's touchdown run on the next play and took all the air out of the Mountaineers' sails with 7 minutes, 22 seconds to go.
West Virginia had scored on its two previous possessions to get back in the game but that K-State touchdown essentially was all she wrote.
Otherwise, not much stood out about the Wildcats' offensive performance. Their other two touchdowns came on a short field, a nice, efficient 55-yard drive set up by an interception, and the other covered just 33 yards after Malik Knowles' 64-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
But while K-State managed just 299 yards total offense on 5.1 yards per play — their second-worst average of the season — there were some positives.
Thompson threw for just 138 yards — his only time under 200 in six games returning from a knee injury against Oklahoma on Oct. 2 — but completed 14 of 19 passes for 74% and was 8 for 9 in the second half. Vaughn broke the century mark again with 121 yards on 25 carries to push his season total to 987.
The Wildcats also played a clean game with no turnovers and were penalized just once for 10 yards.
Defense: Bend, don't break a winning formula
The 345 yards allowed by K-State's defense were the most in their current four-game winning streak, and the fact that West Virginia put together back-to-back scoring drives to start the second half played into coach Chris Klieman's decision to go for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
But the good news was the Wildcats made West Virginia work for everything, averaging a meager 4.9 yards per play. The Mountaineers had one pass play for 32 yards and no other went for more than 20, and their longest run was a 23-yarder by Leddie Brown.
West Virginia was perfect in the red zone, but got there only twice, and K-State was not penalized once on defense. The Wildcats also forced three turnovers, including Russ Yeast's interception on the game's opening drive that set up a touchdown for the offense, and two in the last seven minutes to ice the game.
Yeast had a big game from his safety position with the interception and three pass breakups, including one in the first quarter on a long post pass from Jarret Doege to Bryce Ford-Wheaton that likely saved a touchdown.
Linebacker Cody Fletcher led the Wildcats with seven tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. Fellow linebacker Daniel Green added six stops and a sack, and while end Felix Anudike-Uzomah did not record a sack, he forced a fumble in the fourth quarter that was recovered by Reggie Stubblefield.
Starting with a second-half shutout of Texas Tech, the Wildcats have allowed just 39 points over the last 10 quarters. Not too shabby.
Special teams: Saving the day with two big plays
On a day when neither the offense nor the defense brought their A game, the Wildcats' special teams came to the rescue.
The biggest play of all came in the first quarter with K-State up 7-0, when redshirt freshman Ty Bowman came free up the middle, blocked a punt and true freshman Marvin Martin scooped it up and returned it 7 yards for the touchdown.
Malik Knowles, who already had two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year, nearly added a third to start the second half when he fielded the ball at his own 3, broke free to the left and 64 yards later gave the ball to the offense at West Virginia's 33-yard line, setting up another touchdown.
West Virginia had only 43 total return yards on two kickoffs. The only negative was Chris Tennant's missed 26-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter, though he connected on two others from 32 and 25 yards.
Coaching: Fundamentally sound, plus one gutsy call
It is clear that Chris Klieman and his staff have their players dialed in and believing during their four-game winning streak, and it's paying off on Saturdays.
There weren't a lot of flashy numbers against West Virginia, but neither were there any egregious mistakes. The Wildcats played a clean game, winning the turnover battle 3-0, and were disciplined as evidenced by their one total penalty for 10 yards.
And with the game on the line, Klieman trusted veteran quarterback Thompson and the offense to make a play on fourth down and 8 that essentially iced the game.
The players have bought in and are brimming with confidence, which any coach will tell you goes a long way.