NEW ORLEANS – Chris Klieman made no apologies, and he sure as heck wasn’t second-guessing himself.
He adopted an aggressive gambler’s mentality all season, and it helped get Kansas State to one of the biggest games in program history. With a chance to knock off mighty No. 5 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, why change now?
Unfortunately for the No. 9-ranked Wildcats, it backfired this time. Momentum quickly shifted Alabama’s way and the Crimson Tide were merciless in seizing control Saturday on the way to a decisive 45-20 victory at Caesars Superdome.
With the loss, K-State finished the season at 10-4, while Alabama improved to 11-2. But the Wildcats went down fighting.
“We came here to win, man,” Klieman said. “We didn’t come here to try to keep this thing close, whatever. We came here to win, and that’s what we thought was the best opportunity.”
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That’s why he was resolute in defending his decision to stay aggressive, especially on a missed fourth-and-goal at the Alabama 2-yard line that started the downward spiral.
“I would have done it again. Deuce (Vaughn) would have said let’s go again,” Klieman said. “The fact (was) we wanted to go ahead at halftime.
“It was under a minute left or a minute left or whatever the heck it was. We made a really good call and just didn’t execute it.”
Alabama had scored two straight touchdowns to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 advantage, so instead of sending on kicker Ty Zentner for a short field goal that would have trimmed Alabama’s lead to a single point, the Wildcats went for it. They had already converted two fourth downs on an 18-play drive that started at their own 25-yard line.
But the timing was off just enough on Will Howard’s throw to tight end Ben Sinnott on the right sideline, and the pass fell incomplete, giving Alabama the ball at its 2-yard line with 1:01 on the clock.
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“That one hurt. I want that one back,” Howard said of the throw. “As soon as it came out of my hand I knew it wasn’t a good throw.
“Ben got held a little bit, but I’ve just got to pound it on him.”
Even when Jahmyr Gibbs gained just 2 yards on Alabama’s first play of the ensuing possession, K-State remained aggressive by using a timeout in hopes of getting the ball back before the half. Instead, Gibbs ran for 22 yards on the next play, then Jace McClellan ran for 12 more and Alabama stopped the clock at the 37-second mark.
That’s when quarterback Bryce Young went to work, hitting Ja’Corey Burton for 28 yards, tight end Cameron Latu for 22 and then Burton again for the 12-yard touchdown. Seven plays, 98 yards, and instead of trailing 17-14 at the break, the Crimson Tide took a 21-10 lead to the locker room.
“Give those guys credit,” Klieman said. “We didn’t make a tackle when we needed to make a tackle. And we couldn’t let them go 99 yards to make it, what was it at the end of the first half? A 21-10 game.
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“I’m never going to second-guess myself — and you guys know that from being around us, and we’ve gone for it on fourth down all season long — when we had a chance to go up 17-14.”
Klieman’s players were on board with the decision as well.
“I think all those fourth downs were manageable,” said super-senior wide receiver Kade Warner, who led the Wildcats with five catches for 48 yards. “And so it’s one thing to go for fourth-and-longs every single time and never punt, but when you go for fourth-and-manageables and you have a good play call and you know the scheme they’re going to run, those fourth downs turn into just third downs again.
“We think we’re going to get them, we know we’re going to get them, and you saw us get a lot of them. We just should have gotten a little bit more.”
To make matters worse, K-State attempted an onside kick to start the second half and Alabama recovered at the Wildcats’ 46-yard line. Three plays later, they were in the end zone on a 32-yard Young-to-Ja’Corey Brooks pass down the right side, and the rout was on.
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“Momentum is huge in this game,” Warner said. “There was a shift in it, but like I keep on saying, this team never blinks.
“We could be up by 40, down by 40, and they would go on a 98, whatever-it-was, drive at the end of the first half and the team’s not going to blink. You’re going to come out and keep fighting, and that’s the culture we’ve built here, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys in that locker room, the way they played today. I just wish we had a little bit more.”
Klieman said the decision to try the onside kick was made at halftime with the hope that the Wildcats could regain the momentum they had when they bolted to the early lead on a 41-yard Zentner field goal and 88-yard Deuce Vaughn touchdown run.
“We’ve worked on these kicks every week, all year long,” he said. “Guys will tell you, every week we have it in.
“And we didn’t execute it the way that it needed to be executed. We were trying to put it between the two guys (and) that’s a hard kick. Ty (Zentner) didn’t hit it probably the way we wanted to , but we also knew that we had to take some chances because of the last two drives that they had on offense, where we struggled to slow them down.”
Things then went from bad to worse, with Alabama’s Brian Branch picking off Howard at the K-State 17-yard line to set up yet another score. The Tide needed just one pass for Jase McClellan to find the end zone on a 17-yard run.
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That touchdown completed a run of 35 straight points for Alabama. For the Crimson Tide, who had 496 yards of total offense to 401 for K-State, Young completed 15-of-21 passes for 321 yards and five touchdowns.
Howard, who had been instrumental in K-State’s late-season run, including a 31-28 overtime victory over TCU in the Big 12 championship game, did not have his best day, completing 18-of-35 passes for 210 yards with two interceptions. Vaughn, who may have played his final college game, finished with 133 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
Klieman tried to put it all in perspective.
“We talked in the locker room (and) obviously we’re disappointed in our performance, but don’t be defined by a moment,” he said. “Be remembered for your body of work.
“And this body of work will be remembered in Kansas State history forever because these guys were Big 12 champs and deserved it and earned the right to be Big 12 champs and represent our conference in the Sugar Bowl.”
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @arnegreen.