A packed and raucous home crowd. A heroic effort from their star running back. A historic, emotional farewell to a great stadium.
The writing seemed almost on the wall that the Kansas Jayhawks would at last beat the Kansas State Wildcats, ending a 14-game streak of losses in the Sunflower Showdown.
But the hands of fate had other plans. A series of missed chances, flubbed executions, and questionable calls were the exact ingredients needed as the team in purple slipped back to Manhattan with win number fifteen in a row over the Jayhawks.
A poor start was on the cards for Kansas, as Kansas State quarterback Will Howard tossed a 46-yard bomb to Jayce Young on the first play and finished the drive just four plays later by stepping up and finding tight end Ben Sinott for an 11-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats the lead in seconds.
Freshman QB Cole Ballard had no luck on his first crack at answering, going 3-and-out on his first series, but a deep punt from Damon Greaves stuck the Wildcats all the way back at their 11-yard line.
Howard was able to move the Cats to midfield on his next drive but failed to get further after missing on another deep pass to Phillip Brooks on a 3rd and 8 from midfield thanks to great coverage from Cobee Bryant.
After the short punt placed Kansas on the 18, Cole Ballard responded brilliantly, leading the Jayhawks on a methodical, 11-play drive, converting two big third downs through the air before Devin Neal took a left-side handoff and scooted 36 yards for a touchdown to equalize.
Energized by the touchdown, the Jayhawk defense quickly responded, forcing a lightning-quick 3-and-out of their own to take it to the quarter with the score knotted at 7-7.
The first play of the quarter was nearly a disaster as Cole Ballard got space on a zone read and fumbled, but a heads-up play from Jared Casey kept possession with the Jayhawks and even added a few yards to boot. After a quick sequence, Ballard tossed his best ball of the night down the sideline to Luke Grimm to place Kansas inside the 10, and Neal finished the drive with a 9-yard scamper to give the Jayhawks the lead. A bizarre sequence on the extra point dented the drive, as a blocked extra point return put the lead at only 13-9.
Self-inflicted errors plagued the Kansas defense on the next drive, as a pair of interference calls granted 30 of the 75 Wildcat yards on a touchdown drive capped by a Howard strike to Keagan Johnson for a touchdown to snatch the lead back.
With penalty help of their own, the Jayhawks responded with a seven-minute drive of their own, capped as Ballard found Lawrence Arnold from five yards out despite taking a penalized hit from Kansas State linebacker Austin Romaine to send the Jayhawks into the half with a four-point advantage.
Handed a gift out of the half with an errant kickoff out of bounds, Kansas picked off right where they left off, opening with a big 59-yard pass to Mason Fairchild to put them inside the five, then went ahead by double figures as Devin Neal scored untouched off a speed option toss.
Kansas got off lucky on the next possession, forcing a three-and-out after Howard overthrew a wide-open D.J. Giddens in a scramble-drill situation. However, a conservative drive and a nervy deflection led to no capitalization on the momentum from Kansas, and instead a punt.
A cruel twist of fate hit Kansas as the Wildcats got the ball back at the 11. On the drive’s first play, Will Howard’s pass hit Jayhawk linebacker Rich Miller in the hands with nothing but green grass between the senior and the endzone. With Howard’s blushes spared, Kansas State immediately embarked on a long drive, rolling 87 yards to score after D.J. Giddens punched in from a yard out. The two-point conversion also hit, and a nervous chill crept over Memorial Stadium.
The chill turned to full-blown panic just seconds later as Ballard’s third-down pass was tipped in the air and intercepted by Kobe Savage, giving the Wildcats the ball back at their own 45 with all the momentum. But as if on a pendulum, the momentum swung right back to the Jayhawks, with Howard’s third-down pass sailing straight into the hands of Mello Dotson to give Kansas the ball straight back on their own 30.
Kansas could not capitalize on the swing for the third time, being hampered by a holding call and punting as the two teams entered the final quarter with just three points separating them.
The hands of fate struck Kansas for a second time entering the fourth period, as after a near-perfect defensive possession, returner Trevor Wilson muffed a punt that never left the Kansas State side, handing the Wildcats a lifeline that they would capitalize on to retake the lead with a Howard keeper from 14 yards out.
Kansas nearly responded with a great drive of their own, working the ball inside the red zone before a brutal sack and an even worse interception on 4th and 5 seemed to spell doom as Kansas State got the ball back with just 5 minutes on the clock.
With two minutes on the clock, the Wildcats moved to their 40-yard line, needing a single first down to run the clock out and end the game. After stops on first and second downs, Kansas State faced a third down and seven yards to seal the game. On the deciding down, Howard found Philip Brooks on a sideline out route for a game-ending nine-yard completion. Kneeldowns would end the night as the Wildcats celebrated 15 consecutive wins over the Jayhawks.
Cole Ballard finished 11-of-16 for 162 yards with a score and two interceptions as well as 70 yards rushing. Devin Neal tacked on 143 yards on the ground and a trio of scores in a tremendous performance.
The Jayhawks face Cincinnati next week in their regular-season finale. Broadcast time is unconfirmed at the time of writing.