MANHATTAN — Nobody saw it coming, least of all Alex Barnes.
He always prided himself on being a dependable, sure-handed back.
So when Barnes coughed the ball up three times and turned it over twice last Saturday in Kansas State’s season opener, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I’m a better player than that,” Barnes said after a missed South Dakota field goal as time expired fell harmlessly to the Snyder Family Stadium turf, securing a 27-24 Wildcat victory. “I know I am and my teammates know that, too.
“It’s not something I usually do.”
In fact, after lamenting Barnes’ ball security issues, which overshadowed a 103-yard rushing performance, K-State coach Bill Snyder said as much.
“I have not seen him fumble the ball three times in the entirety of his career here, except tonight,” Snyder said of Barnes, the Wildcats’ leading rusher last year with 819 yards. “Alex, he’s not that kind of player.”
Barnes’ first fumble, in the first quarter, led to a South Dakota field goal, the first points of the game. But it was the third one, deep in South Dakota territory with 50 seconds left and the game seemingly in hand, that left him breathing a huge sigh of relief at the end.
“If we lost, it would have been all on me,” Barnes said.
But one positive Barnes took from the scare was how his teammates rallied around him. Former roommate Alex Delton spoke to him on the sideline, as did offensive tackle Dalton Risner and others.
“It was big,” said Barnes, a powerful 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Pittsburg. “Them letting me know that they still had confidence in me was huge for myself and my performance going forward, so I really appreciate those guys for that.”
The Wildcats will need a strong effort from Barnes this Saturday, when they play host to No. 18-ranked Mississippi State for an 11 a.m. kickoff.
Risner expressed confidence that the Wildcats’ running game will be back on track.
“I think Alex had a lot of nerves,” Risner said. “I think that Alex had a lot of pressure on him and he’s one of the guys on the team that wants to be successful and works hard for it and worked extremely hard all offseason.
“I’m not one bit worried about Alex and I think that he got the first-game jitters out.”
“It was more of a personal issue,” he said of the fumbles. “I was getting lax on ball security and probably trying to do a little too much.
“I don’t really know what I was doing, but I was kind of sleepwalking. I had some teammates come up to me and say that they had confidence in me and all this stuff and tell me that they were ready for me to finally get back in the ballgame, and that really helped me.”
Sure enough, after totaling 23 yards on 12 carries through three quarters, Barnes cut loose for 80 yards on nine attempts in the fourth.
“I was just able to refocus and get my mind back in the game,” he said.
But it nearly all unraveled on Barnes’ final carry, a fumble on a 4-yard gain to the South Dakota 15-yard line that was recovered by the Coyotes’ Phillip Powell.
Four South Dakota first downs later, Mason Lorber tried to force overtime, but his 51-yard field goal try was well short.
Barnes, grateful for the reprieve, has made ball security a top priority this week.
“Coach (Eric) Hickson has been on me pretty heavy in practice and stuff like that,” Barnes said. “I’m just making sure I’m constantly conscious of it.
“When I’m trying to break away, I kind of get a little loose sometimes and I can’t do that anymore.”
Risner pointed to Barnes’ fourth-quarter output against South Dakota as a sign of things to come.
“Toward the end of the fourth quarter he started getting in his groove more,” Risner said. “He started running the ball like he used to and yes, he had a few fumbles that he wishes he could take back, but I know Alex will bounce back.
“He’ll be just fine.”
Barnes was adamant that the fumbles won’t make him a timid runner going forward.
“That’s never going to be an issue with me,” he said.