Isaiah Zuber ran a perfect crossing route. As Baylor defenders swarmed every other Kansas State receiver on the football field, he found open space in the front left corner of the end zone and called for the ball.
Jesse Ertz saw him and threw a pass that hit Zuber in stride. It was a well-executed play by everyone involved, until the ball bounced off Zuber’s fingers and landed on the ground. Instead of a touchdown, the Wildcats settled for a field goal.
That’s the kind of day it was for K-State during a 33-20 victory over winless Baylor on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium.
The Wildcats got back to their winning ways, but they 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.
“It was very, very inconsistent,” Snyder said. “We made a few big plays, but we need to be more of a big-play offense. That needs to be part of the balance that we have and we do not have quite enough of those.… We just have to be better.”
For now, K-State (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) will take the result. It won its conference opener, and moved past a frustrating 14-7 loss to Vanderbilt by beating Baylor (0-5, 0-2) in a game it never trailed.
Still, it wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. The Wildcats were 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.
“There is a lot more on the table, still,” said K-State running back Alex Barnes after rushing for 80 yards. “We left a lot of points on the board, especially in the red zone. We should be able to punch those in pretty frequently and pretty regularly. We weren’t able to do that. That is something we are going to have to get better at.”
The biggest issues are on offense. Much like the Vanderbilt loss, K-State was unable to consistently move the ball against Baylor. 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.
Good thing 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. Two weeks after dropping six balls against Vanderbilt, K-State receivers let four more catchable passes slip away against Baylor. And that number would have been higher if not for Baylor penalties.
“It’s an issue that we thought we had made some headway), … but obviously we didn’t,” Snyder said. “We just have to do something about it. There are two options. One is it gets corrected or you get somebody else. It’s that simple.”
Ertz completed 7 of 17 attempts for 119 yards. K-State ran the ball 43 times.
“We have to do some soul searching as a group,” said Zuber, who made four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown and has been K-State’s top-performing receiver this season. “We are the weak links on the team right now. We have got to step it up. The first two games we played good and now we are just slacking.”
Ertz was most effective on the ground, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown. Barnes also found running lanes along with Justin Silmon and Dalvin Warmack. 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 began the game looking like a team that was still angry about its first loss. They 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 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 an interception from Kendall Adams.
“I am extremely disappointed in today’s result,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. “… We had two huge miscues that put the game out of reach.”
K-State can now turn its attention to next week’s game at Texas, but it may need to play better – and catch more passes – to turn this victory into a winning streak.
“We are not worried about it all,” Zuber said. “We all know that we have good hands. All we have to do is focus and we will get back to making every catch.”
KST—Zuber 16 pass from Ertz (McCrane kick), 13:17
BAY—FG Martin 38, 6:01
KST—FG McCrane 37, 14:13
KST—Dimel 1 run (McCrane kick), 6:35
KST—FG McCrane 21, :04
BAY—FG Martin 27, 7:45
BAY—Lovett 74 run (Martin kick), 3:31
KST—Ertz 15 run (McCrane kick), 14:52
BAY—Mims 70 pass from Z.Smith (Martin kick), 13:07
KST—FG McCrane 49, 8:06
KST—FG McCrane 23, 4:57
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Baylor, Lovett 7-95, T.Williams 11-27, Nicholson 2-6, Martin 2-5, Brewer 1-(minus 1), Z.Smith 3-(minus 19), (Team) 1-(minus 29). Kansas St., Ertz 12-95, Barnes 13-80, Delton 3-23, Silmon 6-16, Warmack 3-8, Dimel 4-8, (Team) 2-(minus 5).
PASSING—Baylor, Z.Smith 26-44-1-291. Kansas St., Ertz 7-17-0-119.
RECEIVING—Baylor, Stricklin 9-102, Mims 7-127, Nicholson 5-24, T.Williams 2-15, Ebner 2-10, Sneed 1-13. Kansas St., Zuber 4-79, Dimel 1-21, Schoen 1-10, Warmack 1-9.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Baylor, Martin 44.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett