Kansas State quarterback Will Howard (15) rushes with the ball against Southern Illinois in its home opener Saturday evening at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Starting quarterback Skylar Thompson sustained an injury in the first half and did not return to the game.

Kansas State lost its undisputed leader less than 10 minutes into Saturday’s home opener. The rest of the way, the Wildcats had to fight tooth and claw to avoid losing the game itself.

And they nearly came from ahead to suffer a stunning loss to FCS foe Southern Illinois — at one point leading 21-3 before falling behind 23-21 at intermission.

A stout second-half performance defensively, paired with conservative-but-efficient offense, allowed K-State to escape with a 31-23 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

While frustrated by certain aspects of the game, Chris Klieman didn’t apologize for coming out on top.

“A win’s a win, and I’m never going to not enjoy a win,” said Klieman, in his third season as K-State’s head coach. “We just have a lot of work to do.”

That starts at quarterback — with the starting quarterback.

On a handoff to star running back Deuce Vaughn, “super senior” signal-caller Skylar Thompson sprinted upfield looking to throw a block.

He never made it.

Thompson stepped wrong and fell to the turf in a heap. He left the game at the 7:21 mark of the opening period and did not return.

That set the stage for Will Howard, the sophomore from Pennsylvania.

Three plays after Thompson left the field, Howard hit pay dirt, ramming it in from the 1-yard line.

The good times continued to roll on Howard’s first full possession: He led the team on a 10-play, 55-yard drive punctuated by a 1-yard score from Vaughn. After Taiten Winkel’s successful point after, K-State led 21-3 with 9:16 remaining before the break.

The good times wouldn’t last.

K-State gave away the ball on each of its final three first-half possessions: fumble (from Vaughn), a pick-six (from Howard) and another fumble (again from Howard).

Before they knew it, the Wildcats (2-0) trudged into the locker room staring at a 23-21 deficit.

The halftime score belied a stellar start, as K-State wasted no time getting on the board. Receiving to begin the game, the Wildcats went 75 yards in 3:15, capped by a 4-yard run from Vaughn. On the ensuing possession, defensive tackle Jaylen Pickle picked off Southern Illinois signal-caller Nic Baker. (If “assists” were a statistic in football, K-State linebacker Ryan Henington earned one on the interception. Baker’s pass nearly hit the ground, but Henington got his hand under the ball and scooped it into Pickle’s waiting arms.)

Pickle’s interception — the first by a K-State interior defensive lineman since Matt Seiwert in 2016 — ultimately meant nothing.

One play later, Thompson returned the favor, throwing behind Phillip Brooks. Southern Illinois’ Clayton Bush plucked it out of the air and picked up 22 yards before K-State knocked him out of bounds.

The Wildcats forced a three-and-out, and were on the march again on their next drive, highlighted by a 50-yard pitch-and-catch from Thompson to Malik Knowles to give the hosts a fresh set of downs at the Salukis’ 12-yard line. Thompson’s injury occurred on the next play.

The 21-3 advantage quickly unraveled after that, and following the second-quarter offensive struggles, K-State took the ball out of Howard’s hands in the third period: of the 18 plays from scrimmage the Wildcats had in the quarter, 16 were carries (Vaughn responsible for 10 of them).

The lone points of the period came off the foot of Winkel, who calmly nailed a 34-yard field goal to edge K-State ahead 24-23.

The Wildcats’ defense then pitched another shutout in the fourth quarter, and boosted by a 4-yard touchdown run from Vaughn with 1:57 remaining that pushed the lead to 31-23 following Winkel’s PAT, the hosts held on for an eight-point victory.

K-State sealed the win in dramatic fashion: With the Salukis (1-1) just 21 yards from the goal line, defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah knocked the ball away from Baker. Defensive tackle Timmy Horne jumped on the ball to end the visitors’ last salvo.

Not that the Wildcats necessarily should have needed the last-minute theatrics. Despite Winkel’s go-ahead field goal in the third quarter, he had an even shorter opportunity in the final period — from 24 yards out — that would have pushed the lead to four with 7:14 to play.

“On that (missed) field goal, I didn’t really see it,” Klieman said. “I don’t know if he mishit it or if we had a poor snap or hold, but we’ve got to make that. Taiten knows it. ... We’ve got to make that chip shot.”

It was another special teams play Klieman noted might have been the game’s most critical point — even if it was easy to overlook amid the numerous momentum-shifting occurrences.

Following their first touchdown, the Salukis ran a swinging gate play on a two-point conversion. The Wildcats snuffed it out.

Thank film study.

Klieman said the coaching staff saw Southern Illinois use that same look in its victory over Southeast Missouri State last week.

“They ran it against SEMO to the right; this time, they ran it to the left,” Klieman said. “In reality, that was a critical play because they don’t get it. ... It ended up being a bigger deal in the end because we had an eight-point lead instead of a seven-point lead.”

Statistically, the Wildcats outgained the Salukis by more than a hundred yards (380 to 276) and won despite losing the turnover battle 4-3.

“That’s a good offense to hold to 276 yards and not many points considering some of those were on the other side,” said Klieman, alluding to Howard’s pick six.

After a flurry of ups and downs — the perfect start, Thompson’s injury, a big lead, a spirited Southern Illinois rally and a rebound the Wildcats that ensured they wouldn’t drop their home opener for the second straight season — Klieman had just about had enough for one day.

“I’m going to enjoy the heck out of this one for about another 45 minutes,” he said, “before I go to bed.”

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