STARKVILLE, Miss. - The most encouraging part of Kansas State's 31-24 victory over Mississippi State can be found on defense.
The Wildcats entered this game facing major questions on that side of the ball. Yes, they manhandled their first two opponents of the season, but it was difficult to judge those performances because they came against weak competition. Prior to Saturday, K-State had only defended 85 plays.
Mississippi State offered a challenge, and K-State had to go against the Bulldogs without top defensive end Wyatt Hubert and starting cornerback Walter Neil, who were both sidelined because of injuries.
K-State coach Chris Klieman asked unproven defenders to step up against a quality opponent in a loud road environment, and they did exactly that by limiting Mississippi State to 352 yards on 71 plays. The Wildcats came up with three turnovers and sent Garrett Shrader spinning like a helicopter on the game's decisive play when he tried to scramble for a first down on fourth-and-16 late in the fourth quarter.
Kylin Hill was the Bulldogs' only source of offense. The star running back churned out 111 yards on 24 carries, but Mississippi State looked out of sync everywhere else. Denzel Goolsby and A.J. Parker both made interceptions against starting quarterback Tommy Stevens and K-State eventually chased him from the game.
The defensive statistics from this game seem comical compared to the first two. K-State linebacker DaQuan Patton entered Saturday as the team's leading tackler with seven stops. Five different Wildcats matched or topped that number against the Bulldogs, with Goolsby leading the way with 11 tackles.
Scottie Hazelton's unit was put in difficult situations, as Mississippi State held the ball for 33 minutes thanks to a pair of K-State turnovers on special teams and five punts.
K-State's defensive line also generated its first sacks of the season. Kyle Ball and Trey Dishon both tackled Mississippi State quarterbacks in the backfield, and Reggie Walker had a QB hurry. That pressure clearly had an impact.
"Our D-Line played exceptionally well," Klieman said. "I'm so happy for those guys, a bunch of seniors up there. They did this without Wyatt Hubert. Guys like Kyle Ball and Reggie and (Bronson) Massie played really, really well at end. So did all the defensive tackles. Jordan Mittie is a stud, and he made plays. (Trey Dishon) made plays. Everybody made plays, and we had to against a terrific running back."
K-State held Mississippi State to five yards per play and made important stops with the game on the line.
It was far from a perfect effort, and K-State is about to face even better offenses once Big 12 games begin. But this is certainly something the Wildcats can build on as they enter their bye week.
Here are some other thoughts, quotes, awards and grades from the game.
Player of the game
A case could be made for Kyle Ball (eight tackles, one sack) and Denzel Goolsby (11 tackles, one interception) considering how well the defense played in this game, but Dalton Schoen edged them both out with a big fourth quarter.
Not only did the senior receiver get open for three huge catches that went for 50 yards and a touchdown, he also made the final block that sprung Malik Knowles loose for a 100-yard kickoff return.
Skylar Thompson looked to Schoen in crunch time and he delivered in a big way. Schoen created all kinds of space on his touchdown grab, and Thompson found him in the end zone for a go-ahead score that gave the Wildcats a 31-24 lead with 5 minutes, 37 seconds remaining.
Play of the game
Just when it looked like the Wildcats couldn't be trusted on kickoff or punt returns, Malik Knowles broke free for a 100-yard kickoff return that evened the score at 24-24 early in the fourth quarter.
K-State has struggled in the return game all season, with Phillip Brooks, Jordon Brown and Seth Porter all bobbling punts. A fair catch seemed like the wise move when Knowles fielded a Mississippi State kickoff at his own goal line, but he had other plans.
After hesitating a moment to give his blockers time to create a running lane, Knowles cut to his left and sprinted through a seam all the way to the end zone.
The Bulldogs were threatening to take control of the game with a 24-17 lead. The Wildcats hadn't scored, or been all that close to the end zone, since the first half. They needed a big play to shift momentum and Knowles provided one.
Stat of the game
It's hard to believe K-State had never won a road game against a SEC opponent before Saturday, but it's true. The Wildcats made history in Starkville.
Quote to note
"The great thing is this is just the beginning. We left a lot out there on the field today." - K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson.
Offense: C+. Thompson and Schoen won the game with some clutch connections in the fourth quarter, but it was only a so-so day for the Wildcats on offense. They averaged 4.2 yards per rush and 6.8 yards per pass. Their longest drive was 55 yards. They possessed the ball for 26:55 and punted five times. Running back Jordon Brown probably deserved more than five touches, considering he turned them into 41 yards and a touchdown. Schoen admitted the offense put the defense in bad spots all game. This was a step back from their first two games.
Defense: A. As mentioned above, the Wildcats were put in difficult spots throughout the game on defense and responded admirably. One thing K-State needs to work on here: penalties. Defensive back Wayne Jones, in particular, was flagged too often.
Special Teams: C-. Malik Knowles and punter Devin Anctil did enough for this unit to earn a passing grade, but the Wildcats have to figure out how to cleanly field punts in Big 12 games. Miscues in that area led directly to 10 points for the Bulldogs.
Coaching: B+. K-State made a lot of mistakes in this game, but Klieman had his team ready to overcome them. The Wildcats never doubted themselves when they easily could have, and they are off to their first 3-0 start in four years.
K-State is off this week, but the Wildcats will return to the football field on Sept. 28 for another road game at Oklahoma State.