MANHATTAN — A near record crowd went bonkers Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium when Morgan Burns returned the opening kickoff the length of the field for a touchdown. It was the best possible start anyone could hope for, and, after months without football, Kansas State fans rejoiced about the season's perfect beginning.
In a sense, it was a sign of things to come. K-State went on to throttle South Dakota 34-0 in front of 53,297 fans.
But no one used the word "perfect" when the night was over.
"We need to be a better football team than what we showed tonight," K-State coach Bill Snyder said.
He said that after injuries knocked quarterback Jesse Ertz and strong safety Dante Barnett — two of the Wildcats' best players — out of the game. After both left for the locker room in the first half and never returned. And after penalties and turnovers erased scoring opportunities.
"We are not where we want to be," left tackle Cody Whitehair said. "We hurt ourselves tonight. We preach wanting to win a championship, and doing those sort of things will not allow us to win a championship."
Yes, K-State achieved its short-term goal and easily defeated an FCS opponent, but uncertainty looms in the long term.
The biggest question revolves around quarterback. Ertz, a redshirt sophomore making his first start, suffered a potentially significant injury to his knee on his first play of the game, a five-yard run to the left behind a pair of lead blockers. He appeared shaken and limped back to the huddle before handing the ball off on second down, but he was unable to continue. Two trainers helped him off the field and backup Joe Hubener took his place.
Ertz spent the next few minutes on the sideline with trainers examining him on a bench. He was noticeably distraught about the situation and was eventually taken to the locker room in the front seat of a cart. He was not seen again.
The extent of his injury is unknown, but Ertz has battled knee problems before. He tore the ACL in his right knee as a high school senior and wore protective padding over it Saturday.
Neither Snyder nor K-State players shared specifics on Ertz's injury, but they spoke solemnly about his playing status.
"I feel dramatically bad for him," Snyder said. "We will see how it plays out. I have no idea right now, but anytime anybody gets hurt, they work so hard and for it to take them out of a game you work so hard for to play, our prayers will be with him. Hopefully it is something where he can get back on his feet real quick."
His absence would be significant.
By all accounts, Ertz easily won K-State's starting job over Hubener and Hays freshman Alex Delton. Snyder expressed confidence in him leading up to Saturday's game. Teammate Will Geary, a defensive tackle, said he has the talent to win the Heisman Trophy.
If he can't play next week at Texas-San Antonio -- or beyond -- where does that leave K-State's offense?
Perhaps the Wildcats will be in good hands. Hubener flashed a strong arm in relief of Ertz, completing 9 of 18 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown. His statistics would have been more impressive if not for a pair of drops from his receivers. He also rushed for 38 yards.
"He did a great job," said fullback Winston Dimel, who scored two touchdowns. "Coach Snyder always says when someone goes down someone else has to step up and there shouldn't be a decline. Joe knows the offense as good as anybody. He is a great athlete and he has a great arm. I know he is going to be fine for us."
He was far from perfect Saturday. He lost a fumble while trying to cross the goal line in the first half and nearly lost another fumble in the second half, though officials ruled him down by contact.
"I didn't expect to get my opportunity that quick," Hubener said. "But I felt like I did all right. There are definitely some things I am not happy about. I wish I hadn't fumbled the ball in the end zone, but I think for the most part I handled business."
He did enough to give K-State a 24-0 lead at halftime, and the Wildcats took care of business from there. He found receiver Deante Burton for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Winston scored K-State's other two touchdowns on short runs.
That was more than enough with the Wildcats playing spectacular defense. Behind six tackles from linebacker Elijah Lee and a dominant effort up front, they held South Dakota to 264 yards.
Shutouts are rare in college football, and K-State got one in its first game.
"That means a lot," Lee said. "Shutouts don't come easy with any team you play. That is a statement."
Still, K-State had to play the entire second half without Barnett, an all-conference defensive back. All summer, he was billed as K-State's best player. On Saturday, he suffered an injury to his right shoulder late in the first half and was unable to continue.
Snyder said little when asked about Barnett.
Without him, K-State used a pair of inexperienced safeties, Kaleb Prewett and Kendall Adams. Making things even stranger in the secondary was the absence of starting corner Danzel McDaniel, who dressed but watched the game from the sideline without a helmet. K-State provided no reason for his absence.
Oft-injured offensive lineman Boston Stiverson also sat out the opener.
K-State did not need its full roster to beat South Dakota. Nor did it require a perfect effort. But it will need to improve as the season progresses..