MANHATTAN — Three days after the fact, AJ Parker was still kicking himself over what should have been a huge play for Kansas State's defense last Saturday at Mississippi State.

His third-quarter interception, with the Wildcats clinging to a 17-14 lead, was just what they needed to regain the momentum, not to mention possession deep in Mississippi State territory. But instead he coughed the ball up, the Bulldogs recovered and drove 79 yards to go in front for the first time.

"It was a big play that happened and I shouldn't have fumbled it," Parker said Tuesday, adding that he thought he was down before losing control of the ball. "But we were able to overcome that and still get the win, so I was happy about that.

"It was one of those things where I made a bad decision. I'm always taught to stay sideline and get out of bounds, but I tried to make a play and cut back and I paid for that decision very quickly."

Despite the gaffe, K-State came back to score twice in the fourth quarter, erasing a seven-point deficit to escape Starkville with a 31-24 victory. They're now 3-0 for the first time since 2015, ranked No. 25 in the Amway Coaches poll and one spot out of the Associated Press Top 25 with a bye week ahead.

Parker, the fumble notwithstanding, has played a major role in K-State's early-season success as a shutdown cornerback. He leads the Wildcats with two interceptions and has been in on six tackles, none bigger than one that stopped Mississippi State quarterback Garrett Schrader just short on fourth down late in the game.

The hit by Parker and linebacker Elijah Sullivan propelled a leaping Schroeder into a helicopter spin, leaving him less than a yard from extending the drive.

"I knew I had to meet Eli to stop it from being a first down, so we just saw him jump and we just hit him and it kind of happened," Parker said of the highlight-reel play. "It shows us all flying to the ball, so it was one of those things where a couple of feet from being a first down if we took any false steps and didn't fly to the ball, it would have been a first down.

"It just shows the mentality of our defense."

Through the first three games, K-State ranks second in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 256 yards a game, including a league-best 118.7 yards against the pass. Parker, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound junior from Bartlesville, Okla., is part of a veteran secondary after starting all 12 games last year as a sophomore.

First-year coach Chris Klieman said he has seen Parker's confidence continue to grow from spring ball to preseason camp to the regular season.

"Confidence and a playmaker and a guy that wants to be put on the spot," Klieman said. "A guy that wants to be challenged — taking on a leadership role.

"I don't know if he did that last year, but he's doing all those things that I see that a dominant No. 1 corner can do, will do, and wants to be in that spotlight. A fun, fun player to watch."

Parker, who played in the shadow of standout senior cornerback Duke Shelley last year, has enjoyed himself in defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton's new scheme.

"It's a defense I like better, because I'm able to play press man," Parker said of playing closer to the receivers at the line of scrimmage. "I'm not off the ball. We're not giving up the short, five-yard hitches or the slants. They've got to work for everything that they get."

Parker has worked for everything as well, according to K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson.

"AJ's always been a good football player, but I think this year he's just playing confident and mistake-free," Thompson said. "That's something that him and I have talked about, just going into this year.

"He's putting in the time (and) I just told him to trust that, trust the time you've put in, trust your ability and just go play. Just have fun."

Though the Wildcats are off this Saturday, Parker is looking forward to next week's trip to his native Oklahoma, where the Wildcats will play Oklahoma State at 6 p.m. Sept. 28 in Stillwater, Okla. He has fond memories of two previous meetings with Oklahoma State, a 45-40 road victory as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and a 31-12 triumph last year in Manhattan.

"That was a good game for me," he said of the 2017 game in Stillwater, where he replaced injured starter D.J. Reed in the lineup. "That was my first Big 12 start, so that's one I'll always remember.

"I'm an Oklahoma kid, going back to Oklahoma, so as a freshman it was a surreal moment for me, knowing I was going in and starting that game."

The fact that he was not seriously recruited by either Oklahoma State or Oklahoma adds even more incentive.

"Of course, when you're an Oklahoma kid not going to Oklahoma, that's something you look forward to every game," Parker said. "That's a game you circle on your calendar, going back to Oklahoma and just showing the coaches what they missed out on."