The Kansas State Wildcats found their big-play groove on Saturday. With two interceptions, a blocked punt, a fumble recovery, and a pair of pass plays totaling 36 and 70 yards respectively, they lit up the scoreboard for 31 points… in the first quarter.
"We expected to scored," K-State coach Ron Prince said, "and we expected to have big plays."
Expectations met. The Wildcats overpowered the Montana State Bobcats on a rainy Manhattan evening, boosting their record to 2-0 with a 69-10 victory.
A week after failing to force a single turnover against the North Texas Mean Green, the Wildcat defense did its best to compensate. The Wildcats forced a pair of Bobcat interceptions and also came away with two fumble recoveries.
"We made some improvements in (forcing turnovers)," Prince said. "I think that's just how we have to play football here. That's part of our culture and our tradition. … We were trying to bring a little more pressure."
The game did not have the appearance of a blowout early on, as the Wildcats led 10-7 six-and-a-half minutes into the game. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, fortunes changed as quickly as the Kansas weather.
Adrian Stryker broke through the Montana State line to thwart a Bobcat punt attempt and Ernie Pierce scooped up the block and carried it a yard into the end zone to boost the K-State lead to 10.
Wildcat linebacker Ulla Pomele put a quick end to the ensuing Bobcat drive, stripping the ball away from runningback Demetrius Crawford to give K-State the football at the Bobcat 10-yard-line. Three plays later, and just 77 seconds after their previous endzone visit, quarterback Josh Freeman rushed to paydirt from six yards out.
"It's very crucial for us to be able to get turnovers," defensive end Ian Campbell said, "and to create opportunities for our offense to have a short playing field."
Exiting the quarter with a 24-7 lead would have been a fair start, but the Wildcats were not finished. Despite have a Montana State cornerback draped over him like a fire blanket, receiver Aubrey Quarles hauled in a 36-yard pass from Freeman to mark the Wildcats fourth visit to the Bill Snyder Family Stadium north end zone in the game's first 12 minutes.
Safety Courtney Herndon put together a big game for the Wildcats, blocking one punt, picking off a pass, and returning a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
For the second consecutive week, the Wildcats put points on the board with their first play from scrimmage. Freeman found the end zone from a yard out, with the short field set up by a Bobcat long snap went awry.
A botched onside kick on the subsequent kickoff set the Bobcats up in Wildcat territory, and Montana State took full advantage. Montana State drove 34 yards to tie the game at 7. A two-yard pass from Bobcat quarterback Cody Kempt to Brandon Bostick capped the drive.
The Wildcats grabbed a 10-7 lead thanks to a 25-yard field goal with 9:30 remaining in the first quarter. The drive featured a promising start, courtesy a 70-yard hookup between Freeman and receiver Deon Murphy, but fizzled out after a holding penalty on the 2-yard line.
"The momentum really took a negative shift for us [after the botched onside and settling for a field goal]," Prince said. "We had to fight hard to get it back."
The Wildcats' first half big-play tendencies did not make for impressive time of possession numbers, but the rest of the offensive totals certainly did not suffer. For the game, Freeman passed for 288 yards and two touchdowns, while also scoring a pair on the ground and rushing for 35 yards.
Both quarterback and coach expressed a fondness for Freeman's developing role as a dual-threat quarterback.
"Oh yeah," Freeman said when asked if he enjoyed adding a ground dimension to his game. "I don't have a problem with running. If coach needs me to run, I'm going to run."
"We feel like he's a pretty fully developed quarterback," Prince said. "We can do a lot of different things with him, and he can handle it from a mental standpoint and also from a physical standpoint."
Receiver Brandon Banks led the receiving corps with six catches for 95 yards and a score. The touchdown marked Banks' third in his first two games as a Wildcat.
"It was pretty exciting to get another touchdown," Banks said. "But I'm just out there doing my job, trying to help the team win."
Murphy, the Wildcats top returning receiver from 2007, returned to the Wildcat offensive starting lineup after being limited strictly to special teams duty in the season opener. He responded with a 70-yard reception and a 44-yard rush.
Murphy's offensive skills proved beneficial, but his punt return skills were rendered practically unnecessary. With one wild snap and a pair of punts blocked and recovered for touchdowns, Murphy stood several yards away from a lot of the action the punt return unit took part in. But he stressed that being distanced from the action was no concern.
"Sometimes I'm sitting back there not even ready to return the punt, because I know we're going to block it," Murphy said. "That's how much confidence I have in the front 10 (of the punt return unit). If they don't block it, I'm going to catch it and try to get in the endzone myself."
With two games' worth of evaluation now in the books, Prince said the Wildcats still have plenty to focus on in the upcoming bye week.
"Pretty clearly, our tackling on defense has to improve," Prince said. "It didn't get any better. We need a huge step up in that area."
Prince also cited the running game, where third string running back Justin Woods led the Wildcats with 57 rushing yards, as an area of concern.
"We didn't run the ball very effectively," Prince said. "I'm not real pleased with how that went."
The Wildcats return to the field on Sept. 17 with a visit to Louisville. The Wednesday evening contest will kick off at 7 p.m. and be shown on ESPN2.