Kansas State football vs. Southern Illinois report card: Wildcats survive and move on

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — Kansas State survived an injury to super-senior quarterback Skylar Thompson and a nightmarish end to the first half Saturday night to rally past Southern Illinois in its home opener in front of 47,628 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Trailing 23-21 at halftime after SIU scored three touchdowns in a span of less than two minutes, the Wildcats took the lead with a field goal on their first possession of the third quarter. They added touchdown with less than two minutes left and that was enough as the defense held the Salukis to 111 second-half yards and forced two late turnovers.

Here are the grades from K-State's 31-23 victory: 

Offense: Where they go from here?

For a second straight season, sophomore Will Howard had to step in for an injured Skylar Thompson at quarterback and the offense was understandably not the same.

Related:Skylar Thompson injured but Kansas State escapes Southern Illinois, 31-23

Howard drew rave reviews from his coaches during fall camp and now has the benefit of last year's seven starts as a true freshman on which to draw. But he looked out of sorts much of the time, especially when facing pressure in the passing game.

His interception with just over three minutes left in the half was returned 41 yards by SIU's PJ Jules to give SIU a 23-21 lead, and he lost a fumble on a sack just before intermission that did not result in points for the Salukis.

K-State wisely kept the ball on the ground most of the second half, particularly going into the wind in the third quarter. The Wildcats tried just one pass on a 14-play, 66-yard drive that took more than 7 1/2 minutes and resulted in a 34-yard go-ahead field goal by Taiten Winkel.

Deuce Vaughn carried the ball 18 times for 81 yards in the second half — he finished with a career-high 26 attempts for 120 and three touchdowns — and the Wildcats got a combined 71 yards from backups Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright for a total of 208 yards on the ground.

To his credit, Howard had a big 21-yard completion to Phillip Brooks on third down to save a scoring drive in the fourth quarter that pushed K-State's lead to eight points. For the game, he was 8 of 17 for 76 yards.

Receiver Malik Knowles had a big game with six catches for 112 yards, but 93 of those yards came on completions of 43 and 50 yards from Thompson in the first quarter.

The Wildcats did total 380 yards on offense, but they'll need Howard to raise his game next Saturday with a full week to prepare for Nevada, or a lot will fall on the shoulders of Vaughn and the running game.

Grade: C-

Defense: Second-half effort saves the day

K-State coach Chris Klieman lamented his defense's performance on the second-quarter scoring drive that triggered SIU's 20-point surge to close the half.

Kansas State defensive tackle Timmy Horne (98)  celebrates with defensive back Russ Yeast (2) after recovering a fumble in the closing seconds of Saturday's 31-23 victory over Southern Illinois at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Other than that, it was hard to find fault with the effort.

With the Wildcats down 23-21 at the break, the defense slammed the door and gave a sputtering offense enough opportunities to secure an eight–point victory over a nationally ranked FCS opponent.

Sophomore defensive end Felix Anudike twice sacked SIU quarterback Nic Baker in the fourth quarter, forcing fumbles on both of them. The Wildcats failed to cash in on the first one with a first and goal at the Saluki 9-yard line, but the second, recovered by Timmy Horne at the K-State 27 with 19 seconds left, sealed the victory.

K-State allowed just 111 yards total offense in the second half, and just as importantly kept Baker on the run. SIU finished with 276 yards for the game, 100 rushing and 176 through the air.

Baker, who completed 16 of 27 passes, was sacked five times, three after intermission. He was even intercepted once in the first quarter by defensive tackle Jaylen Pickle on a diving grab after linebacker Ryan Henington tipped the pass.

More:K-State's Ryan Henington and Wayne Jones make smooth transition to Sam linebacker

K-State went most of the way with the three-man front it unveiled last week against Stanford, even with middle linebacker Daniel Green out for the first half as result of a targeting penalty in the opener. Green provided a lift after intermission, recording four tackles and the fumble recovery on Anudike's first strip sack.

The Wildcats finished with seven tackles for loss, none bigger than Bronson Massie's third-down stop for minus-3 yards early in the third quarter that forced SIU to attempt a 47-yard field goal for the lead. Nico Gualdoni's attempt was wide left, preserving a 24-23 K-State lead.

Grade: A- 

Special teams: Good news-bad news for Winkel

Taiten Winkel's 34-yard field goal in the third quarter put K-State in front for good, 24-23, and that was the good news. The bad news, which could have been catastrophic, was his miss from 24 yards after the defense had forced a turnover at the SIU 9-yard line.

Part of the blame on the chip shot goes to the offense for not doing anything with it on its three downs, but at the time of the miss it was still a one-point game.

Ty Zentner had a better game on kickoffs and punts. All six of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks and he averaged 46 yards on his two punts with one inside the 20 and no return yards.

K-State got a big 31-yard punt return from Phillip Brooks early in the second quarter that set up a scoring drive that made it 21-3.

Grade: C

Coaching: Good enough under trying circumstances

Sure, the offense wasn't great with Will Howard forced to step in for injured quarterback Skylar Thompson, but Courtney Messingham realized that Howard was not sharp in the passing game and wisely kept the ball on the ground in the hands of running backs Deuce Vaughn, Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright. With the defense in lockdown mode, it was a prudent choice.

Defensively, the Wildcats adjusted to shut down SIU's wildcat look with running back Javon Williams in the second half, and more importantly applied constant pressure on quarterback Nic Baker.

Finally, there was no sense of panic after the Wildcats went to the locker room trailing 23-21 at the half. Losing a captain and their most vocal leader, not to mention the face of the program, for a second straight year could have had dire consequences. But they held it together.

They survived one test. Now the question is how they handle it going forward.

Grade: B