Coach Chris Klieman speaks with players

Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman speaks with players during a timeout in the first half against Oklahoma at Bill Snyder Family Stadium Saturday afternoon. The No. 6 Sooners won 37-24, sending the Wildcats to their second straight loss.

Skylar Thompson, back on the field and looking no worse for the wear of last month’s leg injury, had another epic performance against Oklahoma.

But an inability to get stops defensively, plus an assist the No. 6 Sooners received from the officiating crew, prevented K-State from knocking off Oklahoma for the third consecutive season.

The Wildcats battled until the bitter end, but ultimately came up short, losing 37-31 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

“Hard-fought game,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said. “Had a chance to win. Had a number of opportunities. Proud of our team. Played for four quarters. Played with great passion. I told our guys, ‘We’re a good team. We’ve just got to believe we’re a good team.’ We played a really good football team today and went toe to toe with them. We had opportunities to win.”

The Wildcats (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) drove 62 yards before a fumble brought the promising opening drive to a close: Sophomore running back Jacardia Wright, on his first touch since the Southern Illinois game Sept. 11, tried to pick up more yardage on first-and-10 at Oklahoma’s 13, but Sooner defensive end Reggie Grimes stripped away the ball. Oklahoma linebacker Nik Bonitto scooped up the ball and returned it 70 yards before Thompson made a touchdown-saving tackle at K-State’s 19.

The Wildcats’ defense, however, limited the damage: They held the Sooners to a field goal. After Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) got to the 1-yard line, it lost 12 yards after a fumble. Following a false start, K-State defensive tackle Timmy Horne sacked Oklahoma signal-caller Spencer Rattler for a 5-yard loss on third-and-18, forcing the visitors to settle for a 40-yard field goal from Gabe Brkic.

That turn of events, Klieman said, played a prominent role the rest of the way.

“We just needed points on that first drive. Instead, we were down 3-0 and I thought we should have been up 7-0,” he said. “There’s a good chance we would have been up 7-0. That’s one of those things we were chasing the rest of the game.”

The Wildcats quickly put the lost fumble behind them, though, as they came out on their next possession and marched 75 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. K-State rolled the dice on the score, too: it found the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

Initially, the Wildcats lined up to go for it. Then, they called timeout to discuss it more. Once play resumed, the field goal team remained on the sideline.

Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham sent his unit onto the field with a well-designed play.

On the touchdown, fourth-year junior receiver Phillip Brooks momentarily went in motion and lined up beside Thompson before Brooks motioned back out to the right. Thompson faked the inside handoff to Deuce Vaughn and hit Brooks, who outran the OU defenders to the right side of the end zone to give K-State a 7-3 lead after Taiten Winkel’s extra point.

Thompson said it was a play they’ve had stored away all season; it simply was a matter of when they were going to call it.

“We were in the huddle and the coaches were asking me what I liked and gave me about three choices. That’s what I felt like was best for us in that situation,” said Thompson, who connected on 29 of his 41 passes (71% completion rate) for 320 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions. “(Receiver) Malik (Knowles) did a great job of blocking the guy that was man-on Phil just enough to where we could get out and out-edge them. Phil did a good job of finishing it.”

Yet as good as Thompson was, his counterpart, Rattler, was even better. A third-year sophomore, Rattler nearly was perfect: He went 22-for-25 (88%) through the air, which included two touchdowns. One of his incompletions was a third-quarter interception by K-State defensive back Julius Brents.

“Lincoln is really dang smart,” said Klieman, referring to Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, “and he’s got a great plan. So (Rattler has) three different levels on a bootleg pass that he throws. You can take away a couple of them. You can’t probably take away all three if you’re pressuring. And then the ball is going to be completed.”

Once the Sooners’ pass-catchers secured the ball, the Wildcats’ defenders couldn’t corral them; countless tackle attempts were in vain.

“We’ve just got to make more plays in space, bottom line, whether it’s a defensive lineman to a rusher to secondary guys who come up when the ball is thrown,” Klieman said. “We’ve just got to continue to work on being really good in space and getting more hats to the ball and being really good space tacklers. At times we’re good, and at times we struggle. But some of that is, Oklahoma has got some pretty good players. ... The teams that tackle best typically win.”

As efficient as Rattler was through the air, he didn’t do it alone.

Backfield mates Jeremiah Hall (first quarter) and Kennedy Brooks (third) scored rushing touchdowns, while kicker Brkic made all three of his field goal tries.

That included a first-half capping 27 yarder to send the Sooners into intermission with a 13-10 advantage.

Rattler didn’t actually toss his first touchdown until the 5:30 mark of the third quarter, when he hooked up with Mike Woods on a 14-yard strike that extended the visitors’ lead to 27-10.

But the Wildcats’ offense found a rhythm on their next drive, taking just five plays and 2:11 off the clock for their first score of the second half.

Thompson lofted the ball toward Vaughn, who grabbed it and ran in for a 7-yard touchdown reception. Winkel’s successful point after trimmed Oklahoma’s lead to 27-17 at the 3:19 mark of the third quarter.

Then came the game’s most controversial play.

K-State caught Oklahoma off guard, as Ty Zentner successfully converted an onside kick — recovering it himself.

The ruling was then reviewed.

Twice.

The first review involved whether the kick went 10 yards. (It did.)

The second review — which, per the rule book, is not permitted, yet officials allowed Riley to challenge, anyway — looked at whether Zentner kicked it twice. (He did.)

As a result, officials overturned the call, ruling that Zenter was guilty of illegal touching.

Oklahoma ball, just 43 yards away from the goal line.

Though Brents picked off Rattler three plays later, any semblance of momentum the hosts might have had had evaporated.

Their drive ended after yet another review: The Wildcats went for it on fourth down — that was a common theme Saturday; they converted three of their four fourth-down tries — and picked up the necessary yardage for a fresh set of downs.

Only for a moment.

After reviewing the play, officials deemed that the ball went through the hands of Wildcat receiver Landry Weber and hit the ground. Incomplete pass.

Oklahoma scored on the next drive — a 1-yard pass from Rattler to Hall.

After another Brkic field goal pushed the lead to 37-24, K-State pulled off more of its special teams magic: Knowles returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second straight week. He took it 93 yards to the house to cut the deficit to 37-31 with 1:20 go.

Klieman was frustrated both of Knowles’ scores on kickoffs came in losing efforts. But he said he was encouraged that the unit appears to be hitting its stride.

“We’re getting better on special teams,” he said. “So it’s going to continue to be an impact for us. It’s been the last two weeks.”

Another onside-kick attempt by the Wildcats, with barely a minute left, wasn’t successful. Oklahoma recovered the ball and ran out the clock to keep its undefeated record intact.

Yet for all the focus on the double review of Zentner’s onside-kick-that-wasn’t received after the loss, that one play — contentious as it might have been — wasn’t the reason the Wildcats enter their bye week on a two-game skid.

It’s because their defense couldn’t stop the Sooners.

Oklahoma had nine possessions Saturday; it scored seven times. The only drives that didn’t result in points were Rattler’s interception and the final possession of the contest, when the Sooners lined up in the victory formation.

Oklahoma didn’t punt.

“We just didn’t tackle right,” said sophomore defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who had four tackles (one for loss) and a sack. “We have to stick to our techniques that we do during practice. During the game we just froze and didn’t tackle how we’re used to so we’ve just got to fix that for the next game.”

After a 3-0 start, K-State has dropped its last two games as it enters its lone open date of the 2021 season.

Klieman won’t be deterred. He saw enough positives from Saturday’s loss to convince him good things are on the horizon — as long as the team brings the same type of energy as it did against the Sooners, that is.

“If we continue to play with that kind of passion and effort,” he said, “continue to believe and get better during this off week — and try to get healed up; obviously we’re banged up — I believe we’ve got a great story we can still write.”

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