With Skylar Thompson hurt, Kansas State football turns to defense to save the day
Wildcats shut out SIU in second half to escape, 31-23
MANHATTAN — Chris Klieman was visibly shaken as he watched the trainers tend to his starting quarterback.
Not so much because he was worried about the football consequences, but because he ached for Skylar Thompson.
"I visited with him at the time and I was pretty emotional," Klieman said after watching Thompson pull up with a non-contact leg injury midway through the first quarter of Kansas State's narrow 31-23 victory over Southern Illinois on Saturday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "He's a pretty special kid to me and I saw what happened last year in the second game and kind of had déjà vu kind of going through my mind.
"I'm sick for the kid. Devastated, and will pray for the best and see what happens."
Thompson, who missed the last seven games last year with injury, did not return and Klieman did not have an update on his status going forward. That left sophomore Will Howard, for the second straight year, to fill in and try to pick up the pieces.
It was far from perfect as Howard especially struggled in the passing game. Throw in a meltdown by the Wildcats late in the second quarter that allowed SIU to grab a 23-21 halftime advantage and it was a difficult night.
But thanks to another solid effort by the defense and a determined rushing attack, the Wildcats persevered.
"Every game is an act of survival," Klieman said. "You go out there for four hours — last week (against Stanford) was better because we were only out there for three hours — and you try to survive and you're going to learn."
What the Wildcats learned for the second straight week was that they could lean on their defense, this time with a lot more on the line. Not only did they pitch a second-half shutout, but also came up with two fourth-quarter turnovers, which sandwiched around a late scoring drive by the offense, preserved the victory.
"I thought defensively we played exceptionally well in the second half," Klieman said.
In last week's season opener, the defense limited Stanford to 233 yards in a dominating 24-7 victory, but K-State never trailed. Against SIU, it took a strip sack by Felix Anudike at the Wildcats' 21-yard line with 19 seconds left — his second of the quarter — and Timmy Horne's fumble recovery to preserve the victory.
"In the second half, we just knew that we were paying for Skylar first of all, and we knew that we had to make big plays since he was down," said Anudike, the sophomore defensive end, who finished with five tackles and three sacks in addition to the two forced fumbles. "So we just wanted it more, wanted it harder, and we made plays."
Of SIU's 276 yards total offense, only 111 came in the second half. On the Salukis' first possession of the fourth quarter, with K-State still clinging to a 24-21 lead, Bronson Massie came up with a big third-down stop that forced a 47-yard Nico Gualdoni field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
"Just as a whole unit we take pride in just doing everything we can to help this team win games," said cornerback Julius Brents, who led the Wildcats in tackles with six and also broke up a pass. "Being there for the offense when they're sluggish and vice versa.
"Just piggy-backing off each other. We do strive for that."
Kansas State football vs. Southern Illinois report card::Wildcats survive and move on
When Thompson went down with 7:21 left in the first quarter and K-State facing a second down at the SIU 4-yard line, Howard came on and eventually got in the end zone on a 1-yard sneak that made it 14-0. He also led a second-period drive capped by Deuce Vaughn's 1-yard run with 9:16 to go in the half for a 21-3 advantage.
That's when things went south. SIU drove 75 yards on the defense's worst possession to score on Javon Williams' 4-yard run out of the wildcat formation at the 5:09 mark.
That triggered a three-touchdown surge in the span of less than two minutes.
Vaughn's first career fumble, at his 9-yard line, led to another Williams score, this time from 1 yard. And with 3:16 left before halftime, PJ Jules picked off an errant Howard pass and returned it 41 yards to put the Salukis in front by two.
K-State turned to its running game in the second half, and after getting a defensive stop marched 66 yards in 14 plays, taking 7 minutes, 38 seconds off the clock, to grab the lead for good on Taiten Winkel's 34-yard field goal. The Wildcats attempted just one pass on the drive, even choosing to run the option on third down and 8 from the SIU 17 before settling for the field goal.
Vaughn carried six times for 30 yards on the drive and finished with 120 yards on a career-high 26 carries. Of the Wildcats' 208 rushing yards, 125 came in the second half.
Vaughn also picked up his third touchdown on a 4-yard run with 1:57 left that with Winkel's point after made it an eight-point game. Howard even had a big 21-yard completion to Phillip Brooks on third down at the K-State 41-yard line to keep the drive alive.
Asked if the shock of Thompson's injury might have contributed to his team's struggles, Klieman didn't dismiss the notion.
"As good a player as he is and as much time and effort and stuff as he's put into getting himself back to playing, and he's really the voice of the team — he and (center) Noah Johnson," Klieman said. "Absolutely I think that was (an issue).
"But that's the adversity we have to overcome, and we had to overcome it today. We struggled for a while to overcome it, but we did overcome it and got a win. And so we'll pray that the kid gets good news, but it looks like for the foreseeable future we've got to go with Will, and Will will be ready to play."
K-State plays host to Nevada at 1 p.m. next Saturday in its final nonconference game.