Kansas State football vs. Texas report card: Grading the Wildcats' 22-17 loss

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal
Texas running back Roschon Johnson (2) runs for a touchdown while defended Kansas State safety Ross Elder (19) tries to defend Friday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

AUSTIN, Texas — Even on a day when they were noticeably out of sync, the Kansas State Wildcats positioned themselves to escape Texas and Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Friday with a much-needed victory.

They led the struggling Longhorns at halftime, 17-16, got the ball to start the second half and then … well, nothing.

Texas, in the throes of a six-game losing streak with zero postseason prospects, throttled K-State after intermission and needed just two second-half field goals to send the Wildcats home — in their own words — both frustrated and disappointed.

A victory would have boosted K-State's bowl resume and secured a top-four Big 12 finish. Instead, the Wildcats closed the regular season at 7-5 with a 4-5 league record and lost to the Longhorns for a fourth straight year.

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Without further ado, here are K-State's grades after a forgettable 22-17 loss:

Offense: (Fourth) down and out in Austin

All season, K-State had been money on fourth down, converting 13 of 16 through the first 11 games. Against a Texas defense allowing well over 400 yards a game, not so much.

On consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the Wildcats came up empty. On both occasions, they needed just one yard on third or fourth down to move the chains but got nothing.

Trailing 19-17 and facing third down and 1 at their own 30-yard line, they were stuffed on two straight plays, essentially gifting the Longhorns three points.

Even so, they drove deep into Texas territory on the next possession, needing a touchdown to regain the lead. Again facing third-and-1, this time at the Longhorn 17, they netted zero yards on two plays.

Vaughn got the call on third down out of the wildcat formation, while quarterback Will Howard tried an option keeper on fourth.

Yes, K-State was without sixth-year quarterback Skylar Thompson, who had been brilliant for the most part in seven games since returning from an early-season knee injury. Thompson, who hurt his ankle late in the previous week's 20-10 loss to Baylor, went through pregame warmups but was no-go, leaving sophomore Howard to take the reins.

Howard, who also started the last seven games last year when Thompson got hurt, had one highlight moment, with a 71-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Chris Tennant's extra point gave the Wildcats their first lead, 14-13.

But offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham wasn't about to put the game in Howard's hands when it counted, limiting him to eight carries and 13 mostly safe pass plays.

Howard's nine completions produced only 65 yards.

The plan instead was to keep feeding star running back Deuce Vaughn, who responded with 143 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Not a bad idea, though perhaps not in a short-yardage situation with a 6-foot-4, 235-pound quarterback under center.

Grade: D

More:'Frustrating loss': Fourth-down woes bite Kansas State football in 22-17 loss to Texas Longhorns

Defense: (Third) down and not out problematic

For the most part, the Wildcats bent but did not break, forcing Texas to settle for three field goals after scoring two touchdowns in the first 17 minutes.

Limiting the Longhorns to 19 points — not counting three set up by the offense's fourth-down failure — should have been good enough. But the fact that Texas converted 8 of 16 third downs and rolled up 381 total yards, kept a K-State offense that already was struggling, off the field for way too long.

Texas held the ball for 33 ½ minutes to 26 ½ for K-State, which for the Wildcats typically is not a winning formula.

Texas was without standout running back Bijan Robinson, and quarterback Casey Thompson left the previous game at West Virginia after aggravating a thumb injury. So the Longhorns turned to backup running back Roschon Johnson, a 6-2, 219-pound bruiser, and a heavy dose of the wildcat formation.

By snapping the ball directly to Johnson, they limited the wear and tear on Thompson, who still completed 17 of 23 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. Johnson, meanwhile, rushed for 179 yards and a score on 31 carries.

With Thompson's status in question and backup quarterback Hudson Card also ruled out, K-State had to know that Texas would try to ground and pound. The Wildcats said they even anticipated the wildcat look, but not to the degree that Texas used it.

The defense did produce the only turnover by either team when TJ Smith, starting at safety in place of an injured Jahron McPherson, intercepted Thompson in the second quarter, setting up the Wildcats' first touchdown.

K-State did limit the truly explosive plays as Texas only had three that went for more than 20 yards. Problem was, on a day that K-State's offense needed all the help it could get, there wasn't quite enough.

Grade: C+ 

Special teams: No complaints here

After playing a major role in last week's loss to Baylor, the special teams redeemed themselves against Texas, even if they didn't produce any real game-changing plays.

Freshman kicker Chris Tennant, who had struggled of late, drilled a 51-yard field goal with room to spare to put K-State up 17-13 late in the first half. Ty Zentner pinned Texas inside its 20 on four of his five punts, which averaged 41.6 with just one 5-yard return.

Zentner also put two of his four kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks.

Malik Knowles had two kickoff returns that netted 39 and 41 yards.

With neither the offense nor the defense coming up big, the Wildcats could have used at least one momentum-shifting play from the special teams, which is all that kept them from earning an A.

Grade: B

Coaching: Let the second-guessing begin

Much of Chris Klieman's postgame news conference centered on the fourth-quarter play calling that led to the blown fourth downs.

"You can always call something different for sure," he said. "But we felt like we had to run the football and needed to run the football, and bottom line is, with the players we have on offense, we should be able to get a yard and we didn't do that."

Social media platforms, meanwhile, were rife with second-guessers.

No doubt missing Skylar Thompson at quarterback influenced the play calling, in part because Howard is not nearly as accomplished a down-field passer. But other than Howard's long touchdown run and a couple of big gains by Vaughn, there was not much to like.

The defense was hit even harder by injuries with starters McPherson and end Spencer Trussell both sidelined. But while coordinator Joe Klanderman and his defensive staff anticipated Texas' run-first approach, they couldn't dial up enough stops to derail the Longhorns.

"It starts with me," Klieman said. "We've got to do a better job as coaches and I've got to do a better job to make sure that we have really good plans to be able to execute, and we didn't do that today, and that's really frustrating."

Grade: D-