The Governor's Cup is back in Kansas State's Vanier Football Complex. After three straight years of falling to Kansas in the annual Sunflower Showdown, the K-State Wildcats reclaimed the trophy on Saturday with a 17-10 victory.
"Last year, I always walked by (the trophy case) and there was a big void there," Wildcat defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald said. "Now, to have (the Governor's Cup) there, it's just a weight off our shoulders."
The Wildcat victory not only added a piece of hardware to the trophy case, but it also kept K-State (6-4, 4-2) in first place in the Big 12 North.
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"A lot of people took us for granted (prior to the season) and piled us at the bottom of the Big 12," Wildcat sophomore safety Tysyn Hartman said. "To be where we're at right now is a blessing. There's no other way to describe it. Nobody saw it coming."
K-State's victory -- the first for the Wildcats since 2005 --was not perfect, as coach Bill Snyder was quick to point out, but it was one fueled by an inspired defensive effort.
"For the University of Kansas to score only 10 points," Snyder said, "that means somebody played pretty well on the other side of the ball."
The K-State defense forced three Kansas (5-4, 1-4) turnovers, all in the first half, and also limited the Kansas rushing attack to just 60 yards. Jayhawk quarterback Todd Reesing passed for 241 yards, but was sacked twice and accounted for all three Kansas turnovers.
"(Reesing is) a great player," Fitzgerald said. "We knew we had to try to force him to make a few mistakes. The past few games they had a few turnovers, so we knew we had to continue that."
Even when it looked like the Jayhawk offense was clicking, the Wildcats found a way to summon big plays at opportune times. Even a 78-yard second-half drive turned sour when K-State defensive tackle Daniel Calvin swatted down a third-down pass. Kansas kicker Jacob Branstetter missed a 30-yard field goal on the following play.
"For our defense to hang in there the way they did throughout the game," Snyder said, "even though they gave up some yardage and field position, they eventually got the brakes put on Kansas."
While the Wildcat defense worked to keep the ball out of the end zone, the Wildcat offense worked to keep the ball from Kansas entirely. Although the advantage in time of possession was slim, the Wildcat rushing attack proved to be a force to be reckoned with. As he has all season, running back Daniel Thomas carried the load for K-State, gaining 185 yards on the ground. With that total, Thomas now has 1,087 rushing yards on the season, already the third-highest total by a junior in school history.
"(Thomas) is not an easy guy to get down," Snyder said, "and that is for one reason and one reason alone. It does not have anything to do with speed or size or anything else. It is just tenacity and a desire to get that extra inch or foot."
"Daniel is a beast," quarterback Grant Gregory said. "I think he's the best running back in the conference and he has two more games to prove it. He is a great player."
His numbers weren't as flashy, but quarterback Grant Gregory's legs proved just as valuable down the stretch. Gregory converted a pair of third-down opportunities on K-State's final drive that allowed the Wildcats to run down the clock and preserve their seven-point victory.
"I'm not the fastest guy or the quickest guy," Gregory said, "but I get the yardage when it's there."
The Wildcat defense battled adversity from the start, holding the Jayhawks scoreless on the game's opening possession, despite the fact that KU opened the drive on the K-State 32-yard line. Darrell Stuckey returned the game's opening kick 67 yards to set the Jayhawks up in scoring territory early. Kansas advanced down to the Wildcat 5-yard line before a Calvin sack of Reesing negated the Jayhawk momentum. The drive ended when Branstetter missed a 30-yard field goal.
Kansas returned to Wildcat territory on their very next drive, pushing the ball all the way down to the K-State 30-yard line before the Wildcats again found a way to keep the Jayhawks scoreless. One play after converting on fourth down, Reesing rolled right and threw downfield, but Wildcat safety Emmanuel Lamur was waiting on the other end.
The Wildcats took the first lead of the game when kicker Josh Cherry split the uprights on a 47-yard field goal with 11:12 left in the second quarter. The Jayhawks, however, took a 7-3 lead on the ensuing drive when Reesing connected with Dezmon Briscoe for a 17-yard touchdown.
After failing to post points on the board after the Jayhawks' first two turnovers, the Wildcats made the third count. K-State linebacker John Houlik and Lamur combined to force and recover Reesing's second fumble of the game. With the ball in Jayhawk territory and just 36 seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went to the air. Gregory found wide receiver Lamark Brown on quick passes of 8 and 4 yards before reaching the end zone on a 31-yard strike to the towering junior. Brown, a 6-foot-3, 225-lbs receiver entered Saturday with 10 receptions for 128 yards on the season.
The Jayhawks cut the Wildcat lead back to just one touchdown with 5:20 remaining in the game. Kansas matriculated 57 yards down the field, but took over seven-and-a-half minutes to do so. Putting a pair of prior misses from 30-yards out behind him, Branstetter was successful from 46 yards out to make the score 17-10.
K-State's next action arrives next Saturday when the Missouri Tigers visit Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. Despite the fact that the game will again have strong implications the state of the Big 12 North, the Wildcats echoed that they were not concerned with standings.
"We're not looking at the Big 12 Championship," receiver Brandon Banks said. "We're just looking at Missouri next week."