Kansas State vs. Stanford report card: Wildcats' season opener all they hoped for and more

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

The Kansas State Wildcats couldn't have hoped for a better way to turn the page on the disappointing end to their 2020 season than to dominate Stanford in nearly every phase Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Here are the grades from K-State's 24-7 victory over the Cardinal: 

Offense: Inconsistent, but good enough to win

It's hard to argue with the start and the finish, and of course there was a Deuce Vaughn highlight-reel moment, but in between K-State's offense showed that it has plenty of room for improvement.

The first two drives were impressive, even though the opener ended with an acrobatic interception by Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly. Quarterback Skylar Thompson was 4 of 5 passing to start the game and showed his trademark toughness by lowering his shoulder and powering past Kelly on a 6-yard touchdown run to open the scoring.

The Wildcats also finished strong, converting a fourth down in the closing seconds instead of handing the ball back to Stanford.

More:Kansas State football instant analysis: Skylar Thompson dazzles in return vs. Stanford

But the second half as a whole was nothing to write home about, save for a 13-yard Thompson touchdown run that effectively iced the game with 7:10 left, a score that was set up by TJ Smith's interception. Of the Wildcats' 344 yards total offense, only 104 came after intermission, leading coach Chris Klieman to remark that they have to become a better-second half team.

Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson (7) throws a pass in the third quarter on Saturday against Stanford Cardinal.

All eyes were on Thompson, back in action for the first time since suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the third game last year. He was a pedestrian 9 of 14 passing for 144 yards and was sacked three times, but he also ran for 54 yards and two touchdowns.

With Vaughn and the running game accounting for 200 yards — always a good benchmark for K-State — there was no need to go crazy throwing the ball. Vaughn's 59-yard scoring burst up the middle on third down and 13 in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.

But Vaughn's run, and a 56-yard pass play from Thompson to Phillip Brooks to set up the first touchdown, accounted for a third of the total offense, illustrating a need for more consistency.

Grade: B-

Kansas State's defensive tackle Eli Huggins (92) sacks Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee (18) in the third quarter Saturday.

Defense: The new-look Wildcats left Stanford dazed and confused

Who saw this coming?

The fact that Chris Klieman listed three linebackers on the three-game depth chart — a departure from K-State's typical 4-2-5 look — might have been a hint, but a three-man front?

The Wildcats threw Stanford for a loop with a 3-4-5 look and it worked beautifully. The Cardinal seemed confused and out of sorts all day, managing just 233 yards total offense.

Not only did the Wildcats enough pressure to sack Cardinal quarterbacks Tanner McKee and Jack West four times, often with just three down linemen. They completely shut down Stanford's running game, allowing just 39 yards on the ground.

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Turns out that K-State had been working on the three-down front since the spring after reaching out to coaching colleagues as soon as the 2020 season ended. Klieman, whose background is on defense, spent most of his time during preseason with that unit.

The Wildcats mixed things up throughout the game, keeping Stanford off balance throughout, recording eight tackles for loss and intercepting the Cardinals' two new quarterbacks three times. Two sacks in three plays by Eli Huggins and Khalid Duke midway through the third quarter took Stanford out of field goal range and kept the shutout intact.

Stanford did not get on the board until the game was well in hand, completing a 14-yard touchdown pass with 3:16 left to complete the scoring. That against a defense featuring five first-time starters.

Perhaps most impressive was the depth the Wildcats showed, especially up front and in the secondary. They trotted out at least 17 different players on the first series alone, and Klieman said to expect more of the same through at least the other two nonconference game as the staff sorts out its personnel groupings.

How much did this performance have to do with facing a Stanford team breaking in two new quarterbacks in a season opener, and can the Wildcats sustain this effort for an entire season? Stay tuned.


Special teams: What's not to like?

The biggest question mark heading into the season was who would handle the place-kicking duties the Wildcats were spoiled for three years by the ultrareliable Blake Lynch?

Taiten Winkel showed that he was up to the task after beating out fellow Butler Community College alum Ty Zentner, by nailing a key 40-yard field goal as well as all three point-after attempts. Zentner, meanwhile, had four touchbacks on five kickoffs, and no return yards on three punts.

Despite the lopsided final score, Winkel's field goal early in the fourth quarter was big at the time, making it a three-possession game at 17-0.

More:Assessing Kansas State football's offensive performance in 24-7 romp vs. Stanford

The only negatives came in the return game, typically a strong suit for the Wildcats. A penalty on Stanford's first punt, put the Wildcats in a hole at their 5-yard line, and a holding call on a second-quarter punt erased a 40-yard Phillip Brooks return.

Other than that, not much to quibble about.

Grade: A

Coaching: K-State staff's offseason work paid off

Klieman, who won four FCS national titles in five years as head coach at North Dakota State, had called the five-game losing streak to end last season "humbling."

Same for the rest of the staff, including coordinators Courtney Messingham on offense and Joe Klanderman on defense, both of whom came with Klieman from NDSU.

Klanderman especially gets high marks for an overhauled defense that allowed just 233 yards while employing five new starters and operating for the first time with a three-man front. The Wildcats, often predictable last year, came at Stanford from all different angles, keeping the Cardinal off balance.

With K-State leading the entire way and the running game producing 200 yards, Messingham didn't have to show his cards very often, resulting in an overall lackluster performance. But his play-calling on the opening drive was masterful until it ended with an end-zone interception, and his call on Deuce Vaughn's 59-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was brilliant.

Grade: A