MANHATTAN — Imagine someone told you, before the start of Kansas State’s football game against West Virginia, that the Wildcats would force four turnovers and hold the Mountaineers scoreless in the second half.
Odds are you would have imagined a K-State victory, possibly a decisive one. But that’s now how things played out Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium. Even though the Wildcats came through with all those positives on defense, it wasn’t enough. Not with a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first college start for a sluggish offense.
That combination led to a 28-23 victory for West Virginia victory, a result that will rank among the most frustrating of the season for K-State.
“It was a weird game,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I am just excited about winning. I do not quite know how we won.”
This game was close throughout, as most usually are in this series, but West Virginia escaped thanks to several key plays on its final drive. Will Grier found Gary Jennings for an important fourth-down conversion in the final minutes and then ran out the clock with a series of punishing runs.
West Virginia (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) kept its hopes of a Big 12 championship alive with the win, while K-State (5-5, 3-4) dropped back to .500 with two games to play.
Will Grier led the Mountaineers with 372 passing yards and four touchdowns, routinely scrambling out of pressure and completing long throws, but he also tossed two interceptions.
Add in two WVU fumbles, the Wildcats had opportunities to win, but Skylar Thompson was unable to guide the offense to consistent success in his starting debut.
“Things kind of caught up with Skylar a little bit, just starting the ballgame and not coming in off the bench,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said.
“I will visit with Skylar about that, but he is still a freshman. I hope you don’t put him under too much pressure in that respect. His effort was good. Overall, he played well, just made some young mistakes.”
Unlike the past two weeks, when Thompson came on in the second half and led the Wildcats to victories over Kansas and Texas Tech, his lack of experience showed. Thompson completed 13 of 26 passes for 159 yards and two interceptions.
He has all the tools to become a great quarterback, but his pocket awareness and confidence reveal his age. K-State’s offensive line supplied excellent protection throughout the game, but he often seemed hesitant to throw down field. On one play, he had Dalton Schoen open deep, Justin Silmon open short and Isaiah Zuber open wide, but Thompson decided to scramble out of bounds for no gain.
Dalvin Warmack was K-State’s best offensive weapon, gaining 96 yards on 14 carries. But he struggled to get anything going in the second half.
And the Wildcats needed an offensive jolt after the way the first half ended.
The game surprisingly swung West Virginia’s way over the final 48 seconds of the first half after the Mountaineers lost a fumble near midfield while holding a 21-20 lead.
Here is what happened during the bizarre sequence:
West Virginia running back Justin Crawford lost a fumble at the K-State 39, a miscue that appeared to put the Wildcats in control. Given the leg strength of kicker Matthew McCrane, who made three of four field goals, they only needed to gain about 25 yards to get into his range.
K-State tried ... Kind of. The Wildcats gave the ball to Warmack on first down, but he was tackled in the backfield for a loss of four yards. At that point, the two best options seemed to be letting the half end or calling a timeout. K-State coaches did neither, opting to let the clock run. Then they called a screen pass to fullback Winston Dimel. It was an odd choice that was made even stranger when West Virginia defensive lineman Ezekial Rose jumped in front of the ball for an interception.
“We did not cash in like we thought we were going to on that,” Warmack said. “That was a big sequence. That gets them momentum going into the half and gets them rowdy and excited.”
It also gave the Mountaineers 10 seconds to score from the K-State 30, and they did exactly that on a wild touchdown pass from Grier to Ka’Raun White in which he scrambled until the clock hit zero and hurled a high-arcing throw into the end zone.
Instead of going into halftime ahead 23-21S, the Wildcats trailed 28-20.
“I guess we could have run the clock out,” Snyder said. “In hindsight, that would have been the best the thing to do. Apparently we thought we could get it up field and have a chance at a field goal. We had about 40 yards to go or so. We didn’t. Bad call on my part.”
It was a fitting end to a strange half. West Virginia outplayed K-State in most areas and outgained the Wildcats 340-192. But the Mountaineers also lost four turnovers, which kept the game close.
K-State defensive back D.J. Reed was responsible for two of the turnovers. On one, he grabbed an interception and returned it to the West Virginia 3, setting up a field goal. On the other, he stripped the ball away from West Virginia receiver David Sills for a fumble.
Denzel Goolsby also intercepted WVU quarterback Will Grier on a tipped pass. Problem was, the Mountaineers shredded the Wildcats when they weren’t turning the ball over until K-State’s defense flexed its muscles in the second half and forced five straight punts.
“Every loss is a team loss,” K-State linebacker Trent Tanking said. “So regardless of any positive things the defense did it goes for not. We lost.”
The outcome could have changed with a little more offense. K-State was too often unable to take advantage of excellent field position and turnovers, settling for three field goals on four attempts and a pair of short Dimel touchdown runs.
The Wildcats were in good shape until the final moments of the first half. They didn’t play well enough in the second half to overcome a game-changing swing.