The manner in which Kansas State beat UCLA in the Cactus Bowl was a fitting end to the season.
K-State trailed 17-7 at halftime and out-scored the Bruins 28-0 in the second half for a 35-17 victory Tuesday in Phoenix, another come-from-behind game in a come-from-behind season.
Three straight losses left the Wildcats with a 3-4 record and on the brink of not even qualifying for a bowl game. They won five of the last six games to finish 8-5, rallying from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at Texas Tech to win in overtime, knocking off then-No. 13 Oklahoma State on the road to become bowl eligible and beating Iowa State with a touchdown on the final play of the game.
“When you have a few disappointments it becomes more and more difficult to climb the mountain, to get back on your feet and do the things that you know how to do right,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “Our guys did exactly that when times are tough.
“I would just as soon won all those ballgame in the middle of the season that we lost but, by the same token, there’s some great value in that as well. They realize the value in life and I think it helps add to their value system and makes them better people.”
Snyder said the Texas Tech game may have been turning point when quarterback Alex Delton went down for the second straight week with a concussion and redshirt freshman Skylar Thompson rallied the team to victory.
“Quarterback goes down, new quarterback comes in, finishes the ballgame and a come-from-behind win,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say there was a specific turning point,” senior defensive tackle Will Geary said. “Like coach Snyder always says, we just kept rowing the boat and things started clicking and worked out for us.”
It also was fitting that K-State beat UCLA with a quarterback switch. Jesse Ertz began the year as the starter but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 at Texas. Delton started the next four, missing the second half of games at Kansas at Texas Tech with concussions.
Thompson made four starts including the Cactus Bowl but was ineffective and gave way to Delton.
“Alex came to me earlier and he was concerned about whether or not he was going to have an opportunity to get on the field,” Snyder said. “He wasn’t begging for a spot, he was just saying, hey, I’m ready. I assured him at that time that he would play a major role in the outcome of this ballgame and, fortunately enough, he did.”
Delton was the game’s offensive MVP, rushing for 158 yards and three touchdowns and passing for one touchdown.
“It has been a roller-coaster year for me personally but I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons,” Delton said. “I think I’ve learned more about myself than I ever have and I’m fortunate for that. Sometimes you think things are going bad but you learn about yourself.
“I’m blessed to be in this position and I think all of us as a team are very blessed to be in this position. We’re going to enjoy this win for the next few weeks before we get back to work.”
The Wildcats are now faced with a quarterback competition, if not a controversy, entering the 2018 season. Delton will be junior next year and Thompson will be a sophomore.
“We have confidence in both of our quarterbacks,” wide receiver Isaiah Zuber said. “Both of them can throw the ball, both of them can run the ball. It’s going to be a great competition come spring.”
Snyder, 78, hasn’t announced his intentions for next year but he is expected to return for a 27th season but there will be a new offensive coordinator with Dana Dimel leaving to become head coach at UTEP. Snyder’s quarterback run game is suited for Delton but Thompson is a strong passer who displayed a high upside, so the new offensive coordinator will have options.
“I think you have two guys that can do the things that we want to do in our offense, which is maintain balance between the run and the pass,” Snyder said. “Both of them can throw the ball fine and both of them can run the ball well.”
The Wildcats lose six senior starters from the Cactus Bowl, including kicker Matthew McCrane and punter Nick Walsh. The other four are on defense: Geary, defensive end Tanner Wood and linebackers Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby.
There could be other departures through transfer or early entry to the NFL Draft including fullback Winston Dimel, wide receiver Byron Pringle and cornerback D.J. Reed.
All-Big 12 offensive tackle Dalton Risner, who missed the Cactus Bowl with a shoulder injury, announced after the game that he will return for his senior season.