(Courtesy of Kansas State Athletics)
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By Austin Siegel
MANHATTAN, Kan. – As K-State Football nightmares go, Skylar Thompson lying on the turf at Bill Snyder Family Stadium was near the top of the list.
In a different season, that might have been the story of K-State’s matchup with Texas Tech on Saturday. Instead, the 31-21 win over the Red Raiders was about a K-State team that has shown it doesn’t matter what players are on the field, the resiliency of the Wildcats won’t change.
At one point, a true freshman quarterback was handing the ball off to a true freshman running back, who was protected by a true freshman left tackle. It just didn’t matter for K-State.
“We played a lot of true freshmen today,” head coach Chris Klieman said. “That excites me, it excites that class, it excites any young player that says, ‘Boy I can play right away and have a chance and compete on the highest stage’. TJ Smith played as a true freshman. Deuce (Vaughn), Carver (Willis), Will (Howard), Tee (Denson) played some snaps. It’s fun to watch. These kids are hungry.”
Deuce Vaughn played a huge role for the Wildcats on Saturday, with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns. In the first three games of his college career, the freshman has gone from an electric change-of-pace option to the focal point of a K-State running back committee.
He continued to do damage out of the backfield against Texas Tech, effectively hitting a walk-off with a 70-yard touchdown catch that put K-State up 10 points with just over two minutes to go.
Vaughn was a sure thing for the Wildcats on an afternoon when they desperately needed one.
“We came out ready, using me for planes and stuff to get people running. That can open stuff up for other guys which is great,” Vaughn said. “I’m just taking it day-by-day, game-by-game and trying to give my team a chance to win.”
K-State would need to rely on players up and down the roster as they matched up with another high-powered Big 12 offense on Saturday. Unlike last week’s upset in Norman, an injury to Thompson challenged the Wildcats at the one position that’s been a sure thing in 2020.
Thompson had to leave the game midway through the second quarter, after a hit that left him clutching his throwing shoulder.
Before he departed, the senior found Briley Moore in the endzone for K-State’s first touchdown of the game, firing a pass into a tight window and into the arms of his childhood friend.
Thompson’s injury forced another true freshman into action, as Will Howard played the rest of the first half for the Wildcats and took the snaps the rest of the afternoon.
“I definitely had some adrenaline going. It felt pretty natural,” Howard said. “My job is the backup, and I’ve always got to be ready to go. Coach Klieman always talks about that, all the coaches always talk about that. You’re only one play away.”
Howard threw for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first sustained action of his college career.
Until the fourth quarter, it looked like a quick start and Howard’s performance would be enough to carry K-State past the Red Raiders, who haven’t won in Manhattan since 2008.
The Wildcats became the first FBS team in eight years to open the season with blocked punts in three-straight games, with another huge special teams play in the first quarter.
But a K-State defense that shut out No. 3 Oklahoma in the final frame a week ago would need to step up again to hold off Texas Tech.
And for the second week in a row, it was Jahron McPherson who came up with a timely interception that ended the last Red Raider scoring opportunity of the afternoon.
“We struggled a bit in the second half, but if you can hold Texas Tech to 21 points, it’s a pretty darn good performance,” Klieman said. “[Coach Klanderman] was spot on with that one, made the great call and give Justin Gardner credit. He was the corner and didn’t allow (T.J.) Vasher to get across his face to make it a 50/50 ball.”
Throughout the afternoon, the K-State defense limited explosive plays through the air and became the first team since 2011 to shut out Texas Tech in the first half.
Ekow Boye-Doe led an impressive contingent of underclassmen on defense, coming up with another big performance a week after seeing the most snaps of his career against Oklahoma.
“I think we’ve gained a lot of confidence. I mean, we beat the No. 3 team in the country, so I think that right there really gave us all the confidence,” Boye-Doe said. “And going against a high-powered offense like Texas Tech, we know we can do it. We know we can do it.”
In the fourth quarter, Howard found Moore for a 66-yard strike that helped the Wildcats march down the field and retake the lead for good. And the next time K-State saw their true freshman quarterback link up with a freshman running back, it was no nightmare.
It was Howard finding Vaughn for the 70-yard touchdown pass that put the game way.
“We’re telling kids there’s an opportunity to have a chance to play, whether it’s 70 snaps or 25 snaps. You can have an impact on the game,” Klieman said. “I’m really excited about a number of freshmen who continue to get better on the scout teams that see that and say, ‘Why can’t that be me?’ You do things right off the field, and you generally have success on the field.”