Just two plays into Saturday’s game, the quarterback unfurled a perfect pass to his open receiver for a 68-yard score. Only this touchdown didn’t come from aptly named, cannon-armed Nevada signal-caller Carson Strong, popularly projected to be one of the top picks in next year’s NFL draft.

No, this was Will Howard, who entered the contest maligned by a portion of the Kansas State fan base for his struggles in 2020 and the mistakes he made in last week’s narrow victory over Southern Illinois.

Yet following his 68-yard touchdown to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe just 46 seconds in, Howard put the ball in the air only nine more times.

Leaning on star tailback Deuce Vaughn and the ground game, K-State took what had been a tie game and dominated the fourth quarter to hold off Strong and Nevada and take a 38-17 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

K-State head coach Chris Klieman said he challenged his players earlier this week “to take the next step” as a team.

They responded.

“We were kind of built for this,” Klieman said. “We knew the non-con schedule was going to be extremely difficult. We knew adversity had struck losing Skylar (Thompson), and we challenged the guys to rise up, get their game to the next level and show that we can play with a really quality team like Nevada. I was so pleased with how we played throughout the game.”

Though Howard picked up the “quarterback win,” he didn’t take a single snap in the second quarter. Instead, third-year sophomore Jaren Lewis came on and led a pair of scoring drives: one resulted in a 22-yard touchdown from running back Joe Ervin, while the other ended with a 34-yard field goal by Taiten Winkel.

Those scores, combined with the explosive play from Howard to Imatorbhebhe in the first quarter, gave the Wildcats (3-0) a 17-7 lead at intermission.

As so often was the case last season, however, the third quarter was a forgettable one for K-State. Strong and the Wolf Pack (2-1) put 10 points on the board to level the game at 17-all heading into the final stanza.

But the Wildcats came alive in the final 15 minutes, outscoring the visitors 21-0. Vaughn got the first touchdown of the quarter on an 11-yard rush on the first play of the period; Howard followed with a 2-yard score with 6:12 remaining, and then another for good measure — this one from a yard out — with 1:12 left.

Vaughn finished the game with 127 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. It’s his fifth straight outing of 100-plus rushing yards. That’s now tied for the third-longest streak in school history. All-time great Darren Sproles holds the record, reaching 100 rushing yards in 10 consecutive games over the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Isaac Jackson broke the century mark six games in a row in 1973. And Sproles had a separate five-game streak later in the 2003 season.

Howard was efficient, throwing for 123 yards and one score while completing 70% (7-for-10) of his attempts. He added 56 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

In his lone quarter of action, Lewis mostly was relegated to turning around and handing off the ball to Vaughn or Ervin. Lewis tossed three passes, connecting on two of them, for 6 yards.

Strong, the highly touted prospect multiple recent mock drafts pegged as one of the top-two picks in the 2022 NFL draft, threw for 262 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 27-of-40 passing.

K-State heads to Stillwater, Okla., next week for its first true road game of the season: a Big 12 matchup versus Oklahoma State, which is the conference opener for both squads.

The Cowboys conclude non-conference play at 8 p.m. Saturday at Boise State.

Next week’s game at Boone Pickens Stadium will kick off at 6 p.m. and air on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.

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