The Gambler: Kansas State coach Chris Klieman shows his trust in the K-State offense vs. Oklahoma
MANHATTAN — Some of it was strategic, no doubt.
The last thing Chris Klieman wanted Saturday was to watch Oklahoma race up and down the field against his Kansas State defense, and the best answer was for the Wildcats to hold onto the ball. If that mean gambling on fourth down to keep drives alive, so be it.
But Klieman's decision to keep the offense on the field for fourth down, not once, not twice, but five times against the Sooners also had a deeper meaning.
"Well, I told the guys that we believed in them, and I needed to believe in them even more," Klieman said after watching the Wildcats convert on four of their five fourth-down plays during a 37-31 loss to OU at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "I told Mess (offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham), it told Joe (Klanderman, defensive coordinator) throughout the week, 'We need to be aggressive this game because they have such a great offense.'
"That we needed to be aggressive, and I also thought we could move the football against these guys."
K-State offense held its own with Oklahoma
He was right on both counts. Oklahoma's offense kept the Wildcat defense on its heels all afternoon and didn't punt once while rolling up 392 yards. But K-State, matched the Sooners and then some, finishing with 420 yards.
"It's exciting, and as an offense, as a quarterback, when your coach is showing his belief and trust in you, that aspect, it gives you some confidence," said senior quarterback Skylar Thompson, who returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a knee injury. "And what I love is everybody in the huddle, we weren't surprised.
"We knew today that we needed to capitalize on some of those opportunities on fourth down and we knew that coach was going to take that risk, so were up for the challenge."
The Wildcats' first touchdown, a 2-yard Thompson completion to Phillip Brooks that put them in front for the only time in the game, came on a fourth-and-goal. The offense also converted one on game's opening drive, only to turn it over deep in OU territory.
But Klieman's message came through loud and clear.
"That was a confidence-booster for the entire offense," said running back Deuce Vaughn. "Because when the head coach is coming and saying, 'We're going for this,' he's putting the ball in our hands and saying, 'Go get us a first down.'
"That's a whole bunch of confidence for us because we're like, hey, he's putting the program pretty much in our hands, and whether it's fourth-and-4 or fourth-and-1, we're going to go and get this. We have to be 100% on fourth down, that's just the bottom line."
The Wildcats were 3 of 3 on fourth down in the first half, and remained perfect early in the fourth quarter until Thompson's completion to Landry Weber was overturned on a video review.
"That was big time," Thompson said of Klieman's decision to go for it with the Wildcats trailing by 10. "Especially on fourth-and-14 there (and) gosh we were so close to making a play there."
Weber had both hands on the ball as it touched the ground, but the ruling was that he did not have control.
"I knew when I caught it that it had moved, but I felt like I had control of it," Weber said. "If I'm there two inches closer I can secure that thing. It's frustrating that I didn't."
Klieman's risk-taking — uncharacteristic for someone who had dialed up just four fourth-down calls total in the first four games — was not limited to the offense. Trailing 27-17 after scoring with 3:19 left in the third quarter, the Wildcats tried an onside kick and appeared to get the ball back when kicker Ty Zentner recovered.
"We had talked about the surprise onside from the start of the game," Klieman said. "I thought it was the opportune time to make that call when it got to 27-17.
"I didn’t want to give them the ball back, and let's be honest, whether you give it to them at the 45 or the 20 they are a good enough offense to score. I thought we executed it really well.”
Unfortunately for the Wildcats the play was again overturned on a video review. It survived one look that confirmed that the ball traveled the necessary 10 yards, but a subsequent challenge by Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, showed that the ball struck Zentner's foot twice on the kick, constituting an illegal touch.
"I didn't know you could review a review, but evidently you can," Klieman said.
The Wildcats did convert one more fourth down on their final scoring drive in the fourth quarter and again tried an onside kick to no avail. But Klieman's message was not lost on the team.
"We were just taking it one play at a time, and the attitude we had in our huddle was really good all day," Weber said. "So they said go for it on fourth down and we were all 100% in."
Wildcats, Cyclones under the lights
Kansas State (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) has an open week before returning to Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Oct. 16 to face Iowa State.
The Big 12 announced Monday that the game will start at 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.