Pivotal second-half mistakes doom KU in 31-27 loss to Kansas State

Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) runs in a touchdown past Kansas State linebacker Austin Moore (41) during the second quarter on Saturday Nov. 18, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas had a chance to extend its lead to three possessions early in the third quarter Saturday night.

With Kansas State deep in its own territory, Rich Miller broke on a short pass from the Wildcats’ quarterback Will Howard looking for Phillip Brooks. Howard never saw Miller coming; all the middle linebacker needed to do was snag the ball and trot into the end zone to put KU up 33-16.

Miller dropped the pass and K-State went down and scored to cut the lead to 27-24. Then KU suffered another drop — a dropped punt by Trevor Wilson near midfield at the start of the fourth quarter — that in turn yielded another touchdown for the Wildcats.

The Jayhawks never scored again and lost in the Sunflower Showdown for the 15th straight time, 31-27.

“It should sting,” head coach Lance Leipold said. “We’re all disappointed. It’s why we put all this time in, and you compete and you fight and scratch, and then you come up short. Especially when you think you have a chance.”

Lawrence native Devin Neal gave it his all, rushing for 138 yards and three scores.

“Those types of games used to be blowouts,” Neal said. “We flipped the script to now making those games competitive, but we don’t want to just make those games competitive anymore, we want to end up winning those games. So it’s still disappointing and we didn’t get the end result that we wanted, but we’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to keep clawing our way and we’re going to get there one day.”

Freshman quarterback Cole Ballard, making his first career start, went 11-for-16 for 162 yards and his first touchdown to Lawrence Arnold, but threw a pair of late interceptions on plays where all of his targets were covered.

“Just trying to make a play when I really don’t need to,” Ballard said. “Trying to give guys a chance and I’ve got to be smarter with the ball.”

K-State quarterback Will Howard threw for two touchdowns and ran for one more, the game-winner with 10:22 remaining. DJ Giddens ran for 102 yards and a score on 21 carries.

KU’s defense did not come to play on the opening drive. Jayce Brown beat Craig Young for a 46-yard completion from Howard on the first play and Giddens ripped off an 18-yard run. Howard threw incomplete twice before finding Ben Sinnott for a touchdown just 76 seconds into the game.

Ballard made some pinpoint accurate throws on KU’s second offensive drive of the night, including a fourth-and-2 dart to Quentin Skinner. That set up Neal for a shifty 36-yard touchdown run to even the score at 7-7.

After a quick stop, the Jayhawks got a massive break when Desmond Purnell stripped Ballard but the ball bounced an additional 14 yards downfield and Jared Casey fell on it. Luke Grimm, back from an injury suffered against Texas Tech, made a toe-tapping catch for 33 yards down the right sideline to set up another Neal score on a speed option.

However, KU’s extra-point struggles reared their ugly head once again as Nate Matlack blocked the point-after and Neal’s cousin Keenan Garber returned it for a defensive conversion to make it 13-9.

Giddens gave Kansas State’s offense a spark on the ensuing series with three rushes for 29 yards. Howard missed Brown on a fourth-down throw, but defensive holding on Mello Dotson gave the Wildcats new life, and the quarterback took advantage of his second opportunity by finding Keagan Johnson for a quick touchdown over the middle.

KU busted out every Wildcat look imaginable on the next drive, then ran the so-called “tush push” quarterback sneak with Ballard. The Jayhawks threatened to stall at the goal line again, as they had twice last week against Texas Tech, after an unsuccessful fade route to Torry Locklin and Ballard keeper in a goal-to-go situation, but on third down Ballard stood in against a blitz from Austin Romaine and found Arnold for the touchdown. After a successful extra point, KU went into the break with a four-point lead despite the first-half blunders.

The Jayhawks came out with an even better drive-starter than K-State’s opening play, as a bit of play-action misdirection got both Neal and Mason Fairchild wide open. Ballard found Fairchild for a 59-yard gain, with Neal blocking for him all the way down, and Neal punched in his third touchdown of the game two plays later to give KU a two-score lead.

After Miller dropped the would-be interception, Treshaun Ward sprinted for a 52-yard gain. Howard redeemed himself with a sharp third-and-9 connection with Ben Sinnott, and Giddens found the end zone for an eventual K-State touchdown, with Howard adding a two-point conversion.

The mistake got compounded three plays later when Ballard tried to force a ball into dense coverage on third-and-13 and had it tipped and picked by Kobe Savage, but Howard responded in kind by, with Sinnott and Logan entangled in coverage, throwing the ball to Dotson directly behind them.

KU squandered the ensuing possession, and then yet another defensive stop at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Austin Booker got to Howard for his eighth sack of the season. Wilson ran up to catch a short punt and couldn’t corral it.

Howard found Brown across the middle for a 29-yard gain, then scored on a quarterback keeper soon after to give K-State the lead once again.

Neal and Ballard led a methodical drive into the red zone, but on fourth-and-5 from the Wildcats’ 11-yard line, Ballard couldn’t find anyone open and tossed an interception in the end zone to Marques Sigle.

Leipold, who called Ballard “mature beyond his years,” said after the game that the ball needed to get thrown on fourth down regardless of circumstance, but on Ballard’s previous interception, “I think he tried to make a really difficult throw.”

Having regained possession, K-State ran out the rest of the clock with hard running by Giddens and a third-down pass from Howard to Brooks near the sideline that was upheld upon review.

The Jayhawks, who fell to 7-4, will travel to Cincinnati for their regular-season finale next Saturday at Nippert Stadium.

“You got to show up on Monday and go back to work, and find a way to end the regular season with a victory,” Leipold said.

Kansas quarterback Cole Ballard (15) breaks away from Kansas State defensive end Nate Matlack (97) during the second quarter on Saturday Nov. 18, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Krug

Quarterback update

Ballard was thrust into action as the third-string quarterback due to injuries to Jalon Daniels (back) and Jason Bean (head). All three quarterbacks were in uniform Saturday, and Daniels even served as a team captain (sort of; he didn’t go to midfield with the four seniors who came out alongside him as captains).

In the lead-up to Saturday’s game, Bean did not practice Sunday but Leipold had said Monday he was “very optimistic” about Bean playing, and by Wednesday Bean was back taking what offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki called a lot of reps in practice.

After the loss, Leipold said Bean had been cleared to play but that KU decided to go with Ballard.

“Just based on practice time and things like that, we made the decision that it was going to be best to go with Cole, and see how that was,” Leipold said, “and (Jason) was available if something happened.”

Ballard, for his part, said postgame that he felt it had “pretty much been known all week” that he was going to start. He added that Bean helped him from the sideline.

“He’s just a great sideline guy, great to be able to be in my ear and tell me what he sees, and just for him to be out there and support me like he did means the world,” Ballard said.

How they scored

First quarter

13:44 — Ben Sinnott 11-yard pass from Will Howard. Chris Tennant kick is good. Five plays, 75 yards, 1:16 TOP. Kansas State 7, Kansas 0.

2:05 — Devin Neal 36-yard run. Seth Keller kick is good. 11 plays, 82 yards, 6:10 TOP. Kansas 7, Kansas State 7.

Second quarter

10:57 — Neal 9-yard touchdown run. Keller kick is blocked. Keenan Garber 91-yard return. Eight plays, 76 yards, 4:28 TOP. Kansas 13, Kansas State 9.

7:26 — Keagan Johnson 11-yard pass from Howard. Tennant kick good. Eight plays, 75 yards, 3:33 TOP. Kansas State 16, Kansas 13.

00:26 — Lawrence Arnold 5-yard touchdown pass from Cole Ballard. Keller kick is good. 13 plays, 75 yards, 7:00 TOP. Kansas 20, Kansas State 16.

Third quarter

13:28 — Neal 2-yard run. Seth Keller kick good. Three plays, 65 yards, 1:32 TOP. Kansas 27, Kansas State 16.

6:37 — DJ Giddens 1-yard run. WIll Howard two-point conversion good.10 plays, 87 yards, 4:01 TOP. Kansas 27, Kansas State 24.

Fourth quarter

10:22 — Will Howard 14-yard run. Tennant kick good. Six plays, 55 yards, 3:01 TOP. Kansas State 31, Kansas 27.

Game stats

Kansas State 7 9 8 7 – 31

Kansas 7 13 7 0 – 27

Kansas State | Kansas

First downs 20 | 19

Rushing yards 166 | 234

Passing yards 165 | 162

Total offense 331 | 396

Fumbles lost 0 | 1

Interceptions 1 | 2

Penalties-yards 2-30 | 5-59

Individual stats

Rushing: Kansas State – Giddens 21-102; Ward 7-63; Howard 4-18; Brooks 2-8; Team 3-(-25); Kansas – Neal 18-138; Ballard 10-55; Hishaw 9-22; Locklin 4-19.

Passing: Kansas State – Howard 13-24, 165; Kansas – Ballard 11-16, 162.

Receiving: Kansas State — Brown 4-96; Sinnott 4-39; Johnson 2-17; Giddens 2-4; Brooks 1-9; Kansas — Grimm 3-44; Skinner 2-23; Arnold 2-17; Morrison 2-17; Fairchild 1-59; Neal 1-2.

Box score


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.