MANHATTAN — the Kansas State Wildcats flirted with disaster and lived to tell about it.
Isaiah Zuber's 85-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter got K-State back in the game and also woke a dormant offense just in time to put together the winning touchdown drive as the Wildcats escaped a South Dakota upset bid Saturday, 27-24, at Snyder Family Stadium.
Even then, Alex Barnes' fumble deep in South Dakota territory with 50 seconds left gave the Coyotes a last-gasp chance to force overtime, but Mason Lorber's 51-yard field goal try on the final play fell well short.
"I was glad we could have that opportunity and fight through that adversity, because it's not going to be all sunshine and rainbows — I'll tell you that right now — through this whole season," said K-State sophomore quarterback Skylar Thompson, whose 10-yard touchdown pass to Zuber with 7:21 left proved to be the game winner. "We definitely got tested tonight and it's probably a good thing.
"It's probably going to open our eyes up and we're not going to take things for granted. I'm really going to step up my leadership this week, because our team needs our leaders to step up."
If a 24-12 halftime deficit wasn't enough of an eye-opener for K-State, Zuber's electrifying punt return clearly was. The Wildcats showed little sign of life in a scoreless third quarter, but with 12:12 left in the game, Zuber fielded a punt at his 15-yard line, broke to the right sideline and cut back to the middle to complete electrifying return that turned the tide.
"When I was looking up to catch the ball, I saw one guy coming and I think Dalvin (Warmack) got that guy, so when I turned on him I saw nothing but room," Zuber said. "I said, 'Oh, yeah. It's go time.'
"That was just the spark that we needed to change the whole game."
K-State's defense, which pitched a second-half shutout but had trouble getting off the field at times, responded first. South Dakota picked up a first down, but then the Wildcats stiffened, thanks in part to a Reggie Walker 10-yard sack.
Thompson, who started at quarterback but shared time with Alex Delton, marched the Wildcats 64 yards in seven plays, hitting Zuber in the back of the end zone from 10 yards out. Barnes' dive into the end zone for the two-point conversion extended the lead to three.
"For Zube to get loose and get that punt return for us and the defense get a stop, we had a lot of confidence that we could go down and go win this game," said Thompson, who also had a 15-yard completion to Zuber on the final drive and finished 8 of 14 for 61 yards and rushed for 58. "Every guy in the huddle saying, 'Let's go do this.'
"I had so much confidence in our guys and even though it wasn't clicking it doesn't mean we couldn't do it."
After another stop by the defense, K-State drove to South Dakota's 19-yard line, only to fumble it away. South Dakota was able to drive to the K-State 34 and get Lorber on for the field goal try, but he mishit it and it never had a chance.
"It was a huge relief off my chest," said Barnes, who fumbled three times and lost two in the game, but also led all rushers with 103 yards on 21 carries. "I'm glad the defense came through."
K-State finished with 408 yards total offense, 256 on the ground, to 334 for South Dakota. The Coyotes managed just 77 yards rushing, but Austin Simmons threw for 257.
In addition to Barnes and Thompson, Delton had 78 yards rushing and also completed 5 of 14 passes for 91 yards. Each quarterback threw an interception.
South Dakota scored twice in the last minute and a half of the first half to build its 12-point lead.
Blake Lynch singlehandedly kept K-State in the game early with four field goals, briefly giving the Wildcats a 12-10 lead on a 44-yarder with 2:15 left before intermission.
But South Dakota answered with a quick scoring drive, regaining the lead on Austin Simmons' 7-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Dakarai Allen in the back of the end zone with 1:29 left. The four-play drive, which included a 37-yard run by Kai Henry and a costly double-penalty on K-State, took only 41 seconds.
On K-State's next play, Delton's pass was picked off by Alex Gray, who returned it 25 yards for a score.
K-State finished the half with 228 yards total offense to 195 for South Dakota, but a pair of turnovers led the 10 of the Coyotes' points.
Barnes' fumble at his 20-yard line set up the game's first score for South Dakota, a 27-yard Lorber field goal.
K-State had a chance to grab the lead on its next possession, driving inside the South Dakota 5, but tight end Nick Lenners dropped Thompson's pass in the front of the end zone and the Wildcats settled for a 24-yard Lynch field goal to tie it.
South Dakota then put together a 74-yard scoring drive with Simmons racing around the right edge for a 2-yard touchdown and the Coyotes led 10-3.
Alex Delton took over at quarterback for Thompson and marched the Wildcats to the South Dakota 5, where the drive stalled and Lynch kicked a 22-yard field goal. Lynch added a 38-yard field goal that cut it to 10-9.