MANHATTAN — Kansas State got back to its winning ways with a 33-20 victory over Baylor on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium, but the Wildcats were rarely impressive along the way.
Every time it seemed they were in position to bury the Bears and put the game out of reach, their offense sputtered or their defense surrendered a long touchdown. A 20-3 halftime lead meant little. Bill Snyder’s team sweated this one out until the end.
For now, the Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) will take the result. They won their conference opener, and put a frustrating 14-7 loss to Vanderbilt behind them by beating the Bears (0-5, 0-2) in a game they never trailed.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. K-State was favored by 17, and led by three scores early. It appears they have work to do if they hope to live up to preseason expectations as a Big 12 championship contender.
The biggest issues are on offense. Much like the Vanderbilt loss, K-State was unable to consistently move the ball against Baylor. Jesse Ertz and company were better in this game, amassing 344 yards, but they often wasted excellent field position and had to settle for field goals.
Kicker Matthew McCrane came up big for the Wildcats by connecting on all four his attempts.
Receivers continued to drop passes at an alarming rate, and Ertz completed 7 of 17 attempts for 119 yards. K-State ran the ball 43 times.
Ertz was most effective on the ground, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown. Running back Alex Barnes also had some quality runs on his way to 80 yards. Still, the Wildcats aren’t moving the ball between the tackles as easily as they did a year ago.
It seemed like this was the week for K-State to break out of its slump.
The game started in ideal fashion. The Wildcats were sharp on their first drive, using a 38-yard run from Barnes to get into scoring range and then finding the end zone on a 16-yard pass from Ertz to Isaiah Zuber.
One minute, 43 seconds into the first quarter, and K-State led 7-0.
It wasn’t a sign of things to come.
K-State was better on defense, particularly in the first half behind the strong play of cornerback Duke Shelley and defensive end Tanner Wood. Whenever the Bears tried to move the ball on the perimeter, Shelley was there to blow his way through blocks and make a tackle. Wood disrupted much of what Baylor tried to do at the line of scrimmage, tipping two passes and delivering some fearsome hits.
Their play allowed K-State to take a big halftime lead, but the Wildcats couldn’t keep things going in the second half after the Bears made adjustments on offense.
The Bears scored their first touchdown late in the third quarter on a 74-yard run by John Lovett that made the score 20-13. Lovett cut through a massive hole on the right side and galloped untouched into the end zone.
K-State answered with a touchdown of its own on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 15-yard keeper from Ertz. But it had some good fortune leading up to that play.
Baylor appeared to have all the momentum when it pulled to within one score and forced K-State to punt late in third quarter. But it lost the ball on a high snap on the ensuing drive. Defensive end Kyle Ball astutely hopped on the loose ball and gave the Wildcats the ball in excellent position.
Just like that, K-State was back on top 27-13. But that didn’t last long. Baylor fought back immediately with a 70-yard touchdown pass from Zach Smith to Denzel Mims, making the score 27-20.
The Wildcats held off the Bears with two late field goals, and can now turn their attention to next week’s game at Texas. But they may need to play better to turn this victory into a winning streak.