Playing less scared than years past, Klieman’s Kansas State football team cracks national polls
STARKVILLE, Miss. — After two weeks of stress-free, dominating victories, Chris Klieman peppered talks to his Kansas State football team all week with the word “adversity,” which he expected the club would face for the first time this season Saturday. The talks centered around the same four points.
Attack the adversity that will come. Don’t panic. Keep believing in yourself and your teammates. And rise up and make a play when it presents itself.
The Wildcats dealt with the first point, and successfully employed the other three, in Saturday’s 31-24 victory Mississippi State on the road.
“There’s so many ebbs and flows in a football game, there’s so many momentum changes,” said Klieman, Kansas State’s first-year head coach who came from North Dakota State. “You just have to flip the script and be ready to attack it when adversity does strike and capitalize on your momentum.”
With its 3-0 start, Kansas State was ranked No. 26 in this week’s Associated Press poll and No. 25 in the coaches poll.
For the third straight outing, the Wildcats started strong.
Mississippi State’s first four drives ended thusly: Punt, interception, punt, punt.
At that point, a little more than four minutes into the second quarter, the Wildcats led 10-0. They had outgained the hosts 139-44. They were ahead in time of possession (11:55 to 8:38). And they were winning the turnover battle. (If one doesn’t account for Mississippi State stopping K-State on downs on the first possession for the Wildcats.)
But the momentum swung in an instant.
Not even three minutes after he scored the game’s first touchdown, K-State running back Jordon Brown tried to field a punt. He fumbled it away, and nine plays later, Mississippi State drew within 10-7 after a 2-yard score by quarterback Tommy Stevens. Though K-State upped its advantage back to 17-7 with 46 seconds left before the half, a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing possession gave Mississippi State 15 extra yards.
The Bulldogs didn’t let the gift go to waste, with Stevens hitting Osiris Mitchell for a 35-yard touchdown and only nine seconds remaining in the second period.
Despite outclassing Mississippi State statistically in the game’s opening 30 minutes, K-State led just 17-14 at halftime.
Klieman kept a cool head in the locker room at the half, too.
“I didn’t emphasize the negative, really,” he said. “I didn’t want to.”
His optimism didn’t do much to stem the tide in the third quarter, however, with the Wildcats losing two more fumbles.
The first came from cornerback AJ Parker — immediately after picking off a pass from Stevens. That led to another touchdown for the Bulldogs, as well as a quarterback change. After two-plus quarters and a pair of interceptions, true freshman Garrett Schrader came on in relief of Stevens. He capped his first drive by running it in for a 5-yard score. The second fumble of the third stanza came courtesy of receiver Seth Porter, who misplayed a punt return in a vain attempt to field it. That led to a field goal, and a 24-17 lead, for the Bulldogs.
Despite the multiple miscues on special teams, Malik Knowles threw caution to the wind on the ensuing kickoff. Hauling the ball in with his back foot on the goal line, he decided to return it, for a touchdown that tied the game 24-24.
The 100-yard kick return came one week after a career-best performance for Knowles, when he caught five passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns. In this case, he said, one equals two.
K-State’s errors, while costly, didn’t lead to its first defeat of the season. Goolsby said part of that is because of the coaching style of Klieman and his staff.
“I think we just play looser,” he said. “Playing more loose allows us to bounce back easier after plays like that. I just think we know what we’re capable of, too, so that confidence (is), ‘OK, you can learn from your mistakes’ and then we go to the sideline, we talk things over and we all get on the same page.”
Schoen agreed. Simply put, he said “guys play a little less scared now” compared to years past.
“They’re less scared to make mistakes,” he said. “So when they do make mistakes, the team is really good about picking each other up. If someone on offense makes a mistake, the defense is over saying, ‘We got you.’”
The confidence Klieman and his staff already have instilled emanated from James Gilbert afterward. A graduate transfer from Ball State, Gilbert has started all three games at running back for K-State this fall. Those flurry of plays that went against the team, particularly in the first half, didn’t bother him in the slightest. He was confident things would go the Wildcats’ way in the final 30 minutes.
His words proved prophetic.
“We knew we were better than this team. We knew we left some plays out there and made some mistakes,” Gilbert said. “But nobody pointed a finger. We all stayed together, stayed the course and just stayed with it. Coach Klieman got us all ready in the locker room and we came out in the second half and did what we had to do.”