It was a purple party at the TaxAct Texas Bowl, but by the start of the fourth quarter, the purple and white overtook NRG Stadium as Kansas State headed toward its first bowl victory under Chris Klieman by handing LSU a 42-20 whipping, marking one of the most dominant bowl victories in school history.
As Klieman and sixth-year senior Skylar Thompson took the victor’s podium, the head coach and quarterback lifted the 135-pound Texas Bowl trophy above their heads, as cheers rang out from coaches, teammates, families, friends, and the purple sea of fans, many who journeyed through snowy conditions to bask in that glow that accompanies made-for-TV moments, and that will no doubt turn into cherished memories that K-Staters share long past the melting snow in the Flint Hills.
As K-State scored the first 21 points and then took a 42-7 lead late into the fourth quarter, the K-State Marching Band began their familiar tradition and serenaded a yellow-and-purple mass exodus to “Happy Trails” with 10 minutes and 15 seconds still remaining in the game, and the countdown to donning bowl championship T-shirts began. Shortly after, Thompson ambled to the sideline one final time to ardent applause and adoring chants, and any pregame nervousness of Wildcat Nation dissolved into hands gripping each moment as the final climatic sights and sounds of the 2021 season began to slowly slip into that fuzzy dream from which folks never want to awake.
But, alas, shortly after 11:20 p.m., the game clock read all zeros, the band played Wildcat Victory, and Klieman and Thompson stood on stage 10 minutes later, looking out over their football family, and then 25 minutes later, Klieman sported a black bowl championship hat and matching T-shirt, and tried to put into words the excitement felt during the game and afterward inside the locker room, a mission complete, and so much still left to absorb.
“It’s fun to win a bowl game,” Klieman said. “First time I’ve won a bowl game. Won a few (FCS) national championships and been on that stage, but this was pretty special. My hat’s off to K-State nation for coming out. What an electric crowd and our fans were in it from the start.”
K-State dominated this from the start behind an aggressive offense that rolled to 442 total yards, engineered the longest drive in Texas Bowl history — an 18-play, 71-yard jaunt that took 9 minutes and 16 seconds — and in front of a crowd of 52,207 methodically dismantled an SEC opponent short on a few players yet just two years removed from winning the College Football Playoff National Championship.
K-State scored touchdowns on 6 of its 9 possessions.
“I fully expected us to win the game,” LSU interim head coach Brad Davis said. “I thought we had a plan that we put together as a coaching staff that would lend to allowing our players to go out and make plays. That plan was obviously not executed well.”
When Thompson wasn’t slinging touchdown passes against the Tigers (the bowl MVP completed 21 of 28 passes for 259 yards and 3 touchdowns), Consensus All-American Deuce Vaughn was leaving defenders puzzled (21 carries for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns to go along with 1 receiving touchdown), and an energized defense stiffened against the Tigers until all that was left was the postgame celebration.
“It honestly hasn’t registered what just happened,” Thompson said. “It was that much fun.”
Vaughn, sitting beside Thompson at the postgame news conference, shook his head in agreement, as the 5-foot-6, 173-pound native of Round Rock, Texas, wore his shoulder pads, a wide grin, and stared bedazzled into nothingness.
“LSU is a team you watch growing up,” Vaughn said. “They’re a blue-blood school. They won a national championship a few years ago. To get this opportunity to play them in a big-time bowl game back in Texas and to have the opportunity to play with these guys, like this guy sitting next to me for the last time, and to come out on top — you’re playing against a top-tier team and you get to do it with your brothers — that’s why it was so big tonight.”
Klieman didn’t hesitate in dishing big praise upon the likely preseason Heisman Trophy nominee. Vaughn finished his season with 1,404 rushing yards, the fourth most in school history, and had nine games with 100 rushing yards to tie for second in school history. Vaughn’s 1,872 all-purpose yardage ranked fifth in single-season history.
“He’s the best player in college football, in my opinion, and for a reason — a consensus first team All-American,” Klieman said.
Oh, Thompson and Vaughn also had help. Junior wide receiver Phillip Brooks had 5 catches for 69 yards, and junior wide receiver Malik Knowles had 3 catches for 42 yards and 2 touchdowns. Thompson capped an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive by hitting Malik Knowles for a 25-yard touchdown. Knowles slanted outside to catch a 10-yard pass, then slipped a defender, sprinted down the sideline and dived past the outstretched arms of cornerback DaMarius McGhee to get the ball past the pylon.
It was a brilliant move by Knowles, who had caught two touchdowns all season and turned in arguably his most athletic reception of the season to get the Wildcats off to an ideal start.
“We came into this game knowing we wanted to be the aggressor,” sophomore First Team All-Big 12 left tackle Cooper Beebe said. “We weren’t going to let our foot off the pedal. We were going to try and run up the score on them.”
When it was time for K-State’s defense to spring into action, senior First Team All-Big 12 safety Russ Yeast responded. Yeast stepped in front of a Jontre Kirklin pass for his fourth interception of the season. Then Thompson took the Wildcats 43 yards downfield and connected with Knowles again from 6 yards out to make it 21-0.
Senior safety Ross Elder led the team with 11 tackles and 1 interception. Junior linebacker Daniel Green and sixth-year senior linebacker Cody Fletcher each had 6 tackles for a defense that surrendered just 152 total yards on 31 over the first three quarters and 308 yards overall.
“To have the offense come out hot and start like that gave us momentum,” junior linebacker Deuce Green said. “We loved that. We have a confidence and a standard. It doesn’t matter who we play against, we’re going to have the same Mob mentality and we’re going to fly around and play our hearts out.”
LSU answered when it needed it the most. K-State had 36 plays and LSU 19 in the first half. Kirklin mounted a 6-minute drive and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Jaray Jenkins with 20 seconds left, and the Wildcats led 21-7 at halftime.
K-State scored 21 unanswered points again coming out of the locker room on three Vaughn scores — an 18-yard touchdown run, a 2-yard touchdown catch, and a 1-yard touchdown run that made it 42-7. It marked the most points scored by the Wildcats this season — a riveting achievement by quarterbacks coach Collin Klein, who served as interim offensive coordinator.
“I felt that was our best offensive performance of the season on all cylinders,” Thompson said. “Our offensive line was blocking its tail off, Deuce was running the ball well, and receivers were catching the ball. We were just firing on all cylinders, and you could feel the aggressiveness of Coach Klein’s play calling.
“He just kept us attacking by his play calls. He didn’t allow us to take our foot off the gas at all, and that’s what made it so much fun.”
“It flew by,” he continued. “But it was a special way to end it for sure.”
Much better than the alternative considering Thompson was carted off the field after suffering a left leg injury against Baylor on Senior Night in late November, causing him to miss the regular season finale at Texas and creating questions whether he would be available to finish off his storied career on his own terms.
Thompson finished his career as the first quarterback since at least 1990 to win 24 games as a starter, as the first player in history to record 6,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards, and he finished ranked top 10 all-time in 15 different statistical categories. Thompson finished second all-time in total yards (8,221), second all-time in passing yards (7,134), and second all-time in touchdown passes (42). His completion rate (69.53%) in 2021 set a single-season record.
“He was phenomenal,” Klieman said. “And I think you could see he was healthy tonight. I think the extra week helped us playing this thing on January 4th. And for him to be on point like he was and know that people were coming after him and hanging in there and throwing some strikes, he was phenomenal.”
Even victories can be bittersweet. K-State had 29 players on its roster that obtained their undergraduate degrees. Of those, a few might return in 2022. But K-State must say goodbye to its Fabulous Five sixth-year seniors — strong safety Jahron McPherson, defensive end Bronson Massie, linebacker Cody Fletcher, center Noah Johnson and Thompson — who were determined to turn around last season’s 4-6 record.
Two days after Thompson underwent surgery to repair his injured throwing shoulder early last October, Johnson sat inside the quarterback’s apartment and concocted a plan. Although both players were seniors, the NCAA paused eligibility clocks for the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, granting seniors an additional season.
A rallying cry for the 2021 football season was born.
Prior to this season, K-State instituted four core values to steer the direction of their campaign, which included “Discipline,” “Commitment,” “Toughness” and “Be Selfless” — pillars that bonded together a squad eager for a better ending in 2021. All season, K-State seniors didn’t miss an opportunity to share that this was the tightest, most fun group they’d ever been a part of during their careers, and there seemed to be a genuine love between players and their head coach, who asked his players go to 1-0 every day.
There was the 3-0 nonconference record followed by the 0-3 start in the Big 12, which was then followed by a remarkable four-game winning streak. At one point, the Wildcats owned the longest active winning streak in the Big 12. Then arrived disappointing losses to eventual Big 12 Champion Baylor (20-17) and at Texas (22-17).
“There’s no better feeling than to see a group of guys gel together like we did this year from offseason training all the way until this point in the season,” Green said. “Everybody has adversity, but it’s how you face it and respond to it. We did a good job doing that.”
And unlike many programs in this ever-changing college football landscape, every K-State senior remained on the squad until the very end Tuesday night.
“On December 15th, we finished finals and had our first team meeting,” Klieman said. “I said, ‘Look, if you’re in this first meeting and you practice after this meeting, you’re all in until January 4th. And all those guys stayed in. There’s no opting out. There’s no bailing out. You’re here with us. And that’s a credit to those seniors.”
The K-State team that began the season with a victory over Stanford at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, wrapped up its campaign 250 miles south at NRG Stadium in the final bowl game prior to the College Football National Championship Game.
It certainly feels like the Wildcats are champions, and they are, and Klieman, the only coach other than Bill Snyder to ever lead K-State to a bowl victory, wasn’t ready to move forward, not immediately after the game, as he sat in a weave of all the different feelings that accompany a stirring victory — his first bowl win with the Wildcats.
“Can I enjoy this one for a little bit?” he asked reporters. “I just think you can build on what we did to win this bowl game in January. We’ve got a lot of talented guys coming back. I think they have a lot of energy going into the offseason. But I’m going to try to cut it down and relax a little bit.”
As Klieman rose from his chair in the postgame news conference, Thompson greeted him with a hug before he occupied a chair of his own behind the interview table.
“I love you,” Klieman said.
“I love you, too,” Thompson said.
Vaughn entered the room, hugged Klieman, and said, “I love you too, Coach.”
Then Klieman disappeared from view to celebrate a landmark victory.