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SE: Making Room for the Wildcats

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By: D. Scott Fritchen

The postgame news conference room carved into the side of Memorial Stadium in Lawrence could adequately house a 1960 Lincoln Continental. At the moment, the standard cored concrete blocks lathered in light yellow paint strained against the standing-room-only gallery of reporters and TV cameras surrounding an empty chair. Everybody waited until a squeaky large steel door inched open. 

A voice on the other side asked, “Is there room for me?” and a smiling Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman, in his purple ball cap and long-sleeve t-shirt, pushed past the bodies and finally found his chair at the front of the room. 

The postgame news conference room scene after Kansas State’s dominant 35-10 win over in-state rival Kansas was symbolic of the ways in which Klieman and the Wildcats, 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Big 12 Conference, have muscled past their competition while making their presence felt down the stretch of the league season. Coming off three straight victories, it could be suggested that the Wildcats, packed in the thick of an ultra-competitive Big 12, are making an indelible statement: Make room for us.

“Our guys know that when we play well and with confidence, we can play with anybody,” Klieman said, “and when we don’t play with confidence, we can get beat by anybody.”

K-State sets its sights on West Virginia (4-5, 2-4) in Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Then it hosts Senior Day against Baylor (7-2, 4-2) before concluding its regular season at Texas (4-5, 2-4) on Friday, November 26. Although the Wildcats have already sewn up a bowl trip for the second time in three seasons under Klieman, it’s apparently been a mute topic around the Vanier Family Football Complex for a squad determined to win the rest of its games. 

“It’s the expectation every year to get to a bowl game here,” senior quarterback Skylar Thompson said. “We just don’t want to be a six-win team and be bowl eligible. We want to be great and win as many games as possible and put ourselves in the best position we possibly can at the end of the year to be in the best bowl game possible. We’re not satisfied.”

Thompson, a sixth-year senior who returned from two injuries — an injured shoulder last season; an injured knee in September that caused him to miss two games — exudes confidence. And perhaps for good reason. The native of Independence, Missouri, is enjoying the best stretch of his career and heads into the twilight of an impressive career reaching various milestones each week. 

Thompson, who passed for 244 yards and one score against the Jayhawks, has completed 100 of 139 passes (71.9%) for 1,318 yards and 8 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions against Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas Tech, TCU and Kansas. The only K-State player to record 6,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a career, Thompson ranks in the top 10 in 15 career categories, and now owns 22 career victories, which ties Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson and Collin Klein for most by a K-State quarterback since 1990. 

“I’m moving around better, I’m getting more confident in my running, and I’m not relying on that and that’s helped my game a lot,” Thompson said of his right knee. “I’m understanding where my checkdowns are at, and understanding where guys are at, and I’m getting the ball out of my hand.” 

What happens when Thompson gets the ball to sophomore running back Deuce Vaughn?

Thompson grins, “Special things.”
 

The 5-foot-6, 173-pound Vaughn, just the third K-State player to reach 2,000 career all-purpose yards prior to the end of his sophomore year — he joins Tyler Lockett and Darren Sproles in doing so ¬— issued his best game yet against Kansas. He rushed for a career-high 162 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a marvelous 80-yard scamper, and had a team-high 6 catches for 70 yards, which put him at 232 total yards. He ranks No. 2 nationally in averaging 132.0 all-purpose yards in his career. 

“We control our own destiny,” Vaughn said. “We have three games to come out and play as a team and a fourth one a little bit later in (bowl season), which is really a great feeling. I feel like we’ve always been a dangerous team. We have the playmakers, the quarterback, the offensive line, and the coaches to be a dangerous team. And we have the defense to go along with it.”

Sophomore defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah earned national defensive player of the week honors after his four-sack, two forced-fumble performance against TCU, and the 6-foot-3, 255-pound native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, fought double teams against Kansas and still had one sack and one forced fumble. Anudike has 39 tackles, including 13 tackles for a loss to go along with a nation-leading 11 sacks, a nation-leading 5 forced fumbles and 1 safety during his breakout campaign that appears destined for All-America consideration. With his next sack, he will set the K-State single-season sack record.

His confidence, too, has keyed a defense that held TCU to 12 points and 340 total yards, and Kansas to 10 points and 274 yards. The Wildcats must now bully a West Virginia offense that ranks next-to-last in the league in averaging just 26.7 points and 376.0 yards per contest. 

“Our confidence level has been high,” Anudike said. “That’s why we’ve been on this winning streak. If we trust our abilities and our game plan we can be a dangerous team. Right now, I’m focused on the next games. We’re bowl eligible, but we’re hoping to go to a better bowl, so we’ve got to win out.”

After starting out the Big 12 season with losses to No. 22 Oklahoma State (31-20), No. 6 Oklahoma (37-31) and Iowa State (33-20), bowl eligibility seemed fleeting. The Wildcats last began a league season with at least three losses and still earned a bowl berth in 2015. By a strange twist of fate, all three of the Wildcats remaining opponents — West Virginia, Baylor and Texas — each suffered defeats on Saturday. Although West Virginia has won the last five meetings against K-State, the Mountaineers appear fallible. Baylor suffered an upset to TCU, and Texas has lost its last four games. 

“We were in a three-game slump, and everybody had kind of written us off,” wide receiver Malik Knowles said. “We’ve come back, and we’ve shown we’re still in it and we’re still K-State.”
 

Malik Knowles 2021 at Kansas

Now in the upper half of the Big 12 standings, the Wildcats have ample opportunity to make some noise down the stretch. 

“We’re 6-3, we’re bowl eligible, and we’ve won three games in row,” Klieman said. “It tells you an awful lot about the character and the resolve of our guys. When we started off the way we started off in conference, there was always continued belief in our locker room and continued belief that we have a good football team. 

“We just needed to turn it around.”

Behind a driven coaching staff and unsatisfied players, K-State now owns the longest active winning streak by a Big 12 team not named Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the team that everybody counted out a month ago has delivered a riveting message to its doubters: Indeed, there’s room for these Wildcats.