PHOENIX — Two concussions knocked Alex Delton out of the final three regular season games, and prior to that the Kansas State quarterback played only the first half of the previous two games.
Freshman Skylar Thompson emerged as a star in the making in leading K-State to victories in four of five games, but don’t count Delton out of the mix looking ahead to next season.
When Thompson struggled in the first half of the Cactus Bowl, Delton came in to rush for 158 yards and three touchdowns and pass for one touchdown to lead K-State to a 35-17 victory over UCLA on Tuesday at Chase Field.
Delton broke a 68-yard touchdown on his first snap of the game on the final play of the first quarter, and he kept it going when he took over late in the second quarter to finish out the game.
“I haven’t been on the field in quite some time but I practiced fully in our bowl preparation,” said Delton, the Cactus Bowl offensive MVP. “I felt confident with everything we were doing with our game plan. I took it as if it was a normal week.
“I just trusted our coaches, trusted our teammates and when my number was called I just went out and played to the best of my ability.”
Thompson completed 3 of 7 passes for 27 yards with one interception, but Delton burned UCLA with the quarterback run game.
“You go with what brung you,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said of sticking with Delton in the second half. “Not that Skylar wasn’t doing a good job, but we knew going in we had to be able to run the ball with (Delton). Skylar can run it as well, no doubt about it, but Alex — the proof is in the pudding – he ran it well.”
Delton’s 68-yard TD was the longest run in K-State bowl history and with Alex Barnes running for 117 yards with a 41-yard TD, the Wildcats (8-5) churned out 344 yards on the ground against a Bruin defense ranked next-to-last nationally against the run.
The Wildcats scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to post their second straight bowl win.
“Anytime you can lead a team to victory, it builds confidence,” Delton said. “UCLA is a great ballclub. Defensively they did some really good things that we knew they would but we executed at a high level.”
The Bruins (6-7) played without quarterback Josh Rosen — the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft if the junior decides to come out – who wasn’t cleared from concussion protocol.
“Josh wanted to play,” UCLA interim coach Jedd Fisch said. “Josh was unable to play because he had two concussions within a four-week span in November and our physicians didn’t feel comfortable putting him out there and putting him at risk for a possible third concussion.”
The Bruins jumped on top 3-0 but Delton gave K-State the lead with his 68-yarder.
“There was a big hole,” Delton said. “I really did the easy part of just running the ball in.”
Redshirt freshman Devon Modster filled in for Rosen and led the Bruins to a 17-7 halftime lead, tossing a 52-yard touchdown screen pass to Jordan Lasley and a 70-yard bomb to Theo Howard.
The second half belonged to the Wildcats. Delton scored on a 1-yard sneak on fourth-and-goal, then the Wildcats got the ball back on the UCLA 24 when safety Denzel Goolsby forced and recovered a fumble.
K-State converted that takeway into an 8-yard touchdown from Delton to Dominique Heath and Barnes’ 41-yard TD run made it 28-17 a minute into the fourth quarter. The Wildcats put it away with a 15-play, 98-yard drive that took 8:06 off the clock with Delton getting his third TD on a 3-yard run.
“That’s the beauty of our offense,” Delton said. “We have the ability to do that, take over kind of the whole quarter.”
The K-State defense took over the second half, pitching a shutout. Goolsby, the game’s defensive MVP, came up with the big play with the fumble recovery and the Bruins managed only 100 total yards and four first downs in the half.
“We knew the two scores they got were good plays by them, but at the same time we gave them to them,” Wildcat linebacker Trent Tanking said. “When you get a wide receiver screen that goes for 60 yards it’s a tough break when a guy gets cut out of the gate, then we had a busted assignment on that deep ball.
“After that, we weren’t going to let them do that again. We wanted to shut them out and we’re happy we did.”