Wildcats Survive Sunflower Showdown

Kansas State extended its current win streak over KU to 15 victories in a row this evening.  This year’s Sunflower Showdown is arguably one of the most exciting games in the last twenty years of this storied rivalry.  KU still owns KSU overall, but all that matters is the present.

This was certainly KU’s year to beat the Wildcats.  KU Quarterback Jalon Daniels started the year on fire and the expectations were high for the Jayhawks.  Then, he went down to injury at the end of the BYU and Jason Bean took over the next week, losing to Texas.  They gained ground the next week soundly defeating UCF but lost a close game at Stillwater.  After their bye they stunned the nation by defeating Oklahoma in Lawrence.   KU was now in the running for the Big 12 Championship game.  Two games later they lost a heart breaker to the Red Raiders.  During the game they also lost their second team quarterback Jason Bean.  Cole Ballard took over and finished the game, but his efforts were not enough.

Coming into this game, there was a lot of speculation as to who would get the start; Ballard or Bean?  Freshman Cole Ballard was given the starting nod for the Sunflower Showdown.  His name might be familiar to you.  His father is Chris Ballard, General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts.  Like his father, he is calm, cool and collected and he led his team well despite his marked youth and inexperience.

The Jayhawks had a great plan of attack for the Wildcats.  Though it was not apparent until midway thru the first quarter.  Kansas State started out of the gates fast.  Will Howard unleashed a cannon throw to Jayce Brown for a 46-yard gain to start the game.  A few plays later he found Ben Sinnott streaking across the back of the endzone.  Then the Wildcat defense forced a three and out.  Kansas State drove the ball to midfield before being forced to punt.  Then the Jayhawk plan of attack unveiled itself.

Cole Ballard started dinking and dunking the Jayhawks down the field.  KU mixed in some well time runs as they steadily moved the ball down to the KSU 36-yard line.  Then, Devin Neal gashed the Wildcats for a 36-yard touchdown tying the game.  KU’s defense showed pitched a three and out and KU started the second quarter with the ball. They hit two big explosive plays during their seven-play drive to the endzone.  Cole Ballard started the series off with a 27 yard scramble and later in the drive he hit a 33 yard strike to Luke Grime.  Though KU scored a touchdown on this drive, the Wildcat special teams blocked the extra point and ran the ball back to score two points.  After an 11-play drive, KSU regained the lead after Howard connected with Keagan Johnson on an underneath route he turned up field into the endzone.

The Jayhawks wisely held on to the ball the next seven minutes as they drove the field to retake the lead sixteen plays later.  The drive didn’t start well for Ballard as Khalid Duke sacked him for an eight-yard loss.  However, once again Devin Neal gashed the Wildcat defense for 17 yards giving the Jayhawks a manageable third down to convert.  Dinking and dunking and hitting on their run plays, the Jayhawks out schemed the Wildcat defense.  During the first half they were particularly masterful on third down as they would put Torry Locklin in as the Wildcat back. He would take the snap, read the field and either run, give or pitch the ball usually converting the down.

Will Howard was inconsistent at best throughout the game.  Coach Klieman has nerves of steel because Howard overthrew wide open receivers at least six times throughout the game.  All of those throws would have been for first downs had they connected.  Howard was also hurt, limping around the field when each KSU offensive series was over.  KU’s defense should be commended.  They forced four, three and outs and picked off Howard once.

KU’s master stroke was holding the ball for over seven minutes and scoring right before half time.  This was masterful because it kept the ball away from the Wildcats while scoring.   However, more importantly, KU was receiving the ball to start the second half.  The Jayhawks paid themselves off in the second half by driving the field in three plays and scoring, putting them up over their rivals by eleven points.  Once again, the Jayhawks drive was built off an explosive, this time a 59-yard pass play to Mason Fairchild.  The score was 27 to 16 with the Jayhawks seemingly in control of the game.

Kansas State wide receiver Jayce Brown (1) runs the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

After KSU and KU traded three and outs, the Wildcats went on the move.  The drive didn’t start well, as Howard almost thru a pick six.  That play was quickly forgotten because on the next down Treshaun Ward exploded for a 52-yards, setting up the Wildcats for an eventual touchdown.  Coach Klieman called for a two-point conversion and Will Howard pounded his way in bringing his team within three points of the Jayhawks.

At this point in the game, the Wildcats defense finally woke up.  They started the series off with a sack, and then stuffed the next run play.  On third down, KSU pressured Ballard again forcing him out of the pocket.  He threw the ball at his receiver who was surrounded by defenders.  The receiver tipped the ball up in the air and Kobe Savage came down with KSU’s first interception of the game.  Four plays later, KU corner back Mello Dotson intercepted Howard.  It was a terrible read and the ball sailed into the defender’s hands.

Kansas started moving the ball.  Two plays and they had driven 24 yards.  Then, they committed a holding penalty.  Three run plays later and they were punting back to the Wildcats.  The Jayhawk defense forced their fourth three and out.  The Wildcats were given new life when the Jayhawk returner muffed the ball into a Wildcat’s hands.  For some reason, Coach Klein called the same run play he called three plays earlier that was stuffed for six yards.  This time Giddens only lost three yards.  This was not a great start.  However, on third and seven, Howard found Jaycee Brown on an arrow route and he slashed the Jayhawk defense for 29 yards.  A few plays later Howard himself ran the ball 15 yards into the endzone for the go-ahead and gaming winning score.

Kansas State quarterback Will Howard, right, runs to score a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The game wasn’t over.  KU received the ball drove to the Wildcat 21-yard line.  It was 4th and 5 with 5:41 on the clock.  Down four points, the Jayhawks opted to go for it.  This was not surprising, except for one fact.  Cole Ballard took a massive hit on a third and long run, helicoptering in the hair before being slammed to the ground by a Marques Sigle.  Though the Jayhawks were down four points, putting the ball in their freshman quarterback’s hands after taking such a massive hit was not a wise choice.  Ballard took the snap, rolled to his right and put the ball up.  Marques Sigle came down with it securing the Wildcats fourth turnover of the game.  This effectively sealed the game as the Wildcats moved the ball far enough down the field to salt the win away.

This was one of the most exciting and entertaining games of the year.  Both teams left it all out on the field.  It is safe to say that next year’s game in Manhattan is going to be every bit as dramatic.  For now, KSU still has a shot at defending their Big 12 title.  First, they have to defeat the Cyclones.



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