MANHATTAN, Kan. – Bill Snyder Family Stadium is a harrowing enough place to play with veteran championship-level teams.
Try strolling into Kansas State’s sea of purple and white with a team relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores.
Despite its inexperience, Baylor had enough energy and explosive plays to give itself a chance to win its first game of the Matt Rhule era. But two costly botched snaps in the second half were enough to send the Bears to a 33-20 loss before a packed house of 52,293 fans Saturday afternoon.
Now 0-5, the Bears are off to their worst start since the 1978 Baylor squad opened with five losses. Following a 49-41 Big 12-opening loss to Oklahoma last weekend and the tight loss to Kansas State, Rhule is still seeing encouraging signs that a breakthrough win is on its way.
“Kids in there are pretty broke up right now because we expected to come in here and find a way to win,” Rhule said. “For a brief respite at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, that was a lot of fun. I thought we were going to make enough plays to find a way to win, but we weren’t able to do it.”
Trailing 20-3 after a lackluster first half, Baylor freshman John Lovett broke away for a 74-yard touchdown run to cut Kansas State’s lead to 20-13 with 3:31 left in the third quarter.
After stopping Kansas State (3-1, 1-0) on its next drive, the Bears moved to their own 43 where they faced third-and-one. But Baylor center Sam Tecklenburg snapped the ball over quarterback Zach Smith’s head and Kansas State’s Kyle Ball recovered at the 14.
The Wildcats cashed in as quarterback Jesse Ertz ran for a 15-yard touchdown to push the lead to 27-13 with 14:52 left in the game.
The Bears responded with Smith’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Denzel Mims who beat the Kansas State defense over the middle. Once again, the Bears were back in the game as they cut the Wildcats’ lead to 27-20 with 13:07 remaining.
“It was a great pass by Zach,” Mims said. “He delivered it right here in my chest. We all just picked it up and said we needed to step it up because we came out slow.”
Kansas State came back with a nine-play, 41-yard drive that ended with Matt McCrane’s 49-yard field goal with 8:06 remaining. The Bears still had a chance but punter Connor Martin dropped the snap on fourth down and Kansas State took over at Baylor’s 17.
Martin, Baylor’s place kicker, took over the punting duties in the first quarter after Drew Galitz went out with an injury on the opening kickoff. Rhule said he didn’t know the full extent of Galitz’s injury, but he said it could be an knee issue that could force him to miss the rest of the season.
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Though the Baylor defense put up a strong stand, McCrane hit his fourth field goal to push Kansas State’s lead to 33-20 with 4:57 remaining.
“Obviously, we had two huge miscues that put the game out of reach,” Rhule said. “You see guys out there kind of beating themselves. In the phase now where we’re playing a lot better football, we’re still beating ourselves at crucial times.”
Kansas State finished off the win when Kendall Adams intercepted Smith’s pass at the Wildcats’ 20 with 2:44 remaining.
After picking up just 80 first-half yards, the Bears amassed 295 in the second half. Smith hit 26 of 44 passes for 291 yards but was sacked three times. Despite Lovett’s breakaway touchdown run, the Bears finished with just 84 yards rushing.
Baylor continued to be plagued by penalties with 10 for 60 yards.
“Next time we have to come out with more energy,” Lovett said. “That’s how we did in the second half. We didn’t play Baylor football in the first half. We played a little bit of Baylor football in the second half. We can be a lot better. We need to keep making plays that we need and minimize the penalties for sure.”
Ertz keyed Kansas State’s offense with a team-high 95 yards rushing and a touchdown while hitting seven of 17 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. Alex Barnes added 80 yards rushing on 13 carries while Isaiah Zuber led the Wildcats’ receivers with four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Baylor’s defense improved as the game progressed as it limited the Wildcats to 115 yards in the second half.
“We challenged them in the second half to be the more physical team,” Rhule said. “Phil (Snow) made some adjustments. We kept some zone pressures on. The biggest thing in the first half was we were not real physical and they were running through us.”
Holding the Bears to 10 yards rushing on 11 carries, the Wildcats went into halftime with a 20-3 lead.
Kansas State relied on Ertz’s arm and legs as he threw for 100 first-half yards and a touchdown and rushed for 50 yards on seven carries.
The Wildcats needed just four plays to drive 75 yards for a touchdown on their first drive of the game.
After Ertz hit Zuber for 15 yards, Barnes busted loose for 38 to Baylor’s 16. On the next play, Ertz found Zuber behind Baylor cornerback Grayland Arnold for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a quick 7-0 lead.
With Smith hitting five straight passes, the Bears moved 53 yards on 13 plays to set up Martin’s 38-yard field goal. But the seeds of Baylor’s issues were already there as it rushed for 14 yards on seven carries.
Martin took over punting duties and hit a 40-yarder on his first attempt. But Byron Pringle returned it 34 yards to Baylor’s 38 to set up McCrane’s 37-yard field goal with 14:13 left in the second quarter.
The Bears missed a big chance to score after Marques Jones recovered a fumbled punt return by D.J. Reed at Kansas State’s 14.
The Bears went backwards as Adams nailed Tony Nicholson for a 6-yard loss after a Smith pass on first down. On third down, Davis Clark drilled Smith for a 7-yard loss before Reggie Walker blocked Martin’s 44-yard field goal attempt.
Kansas State took advantage of the momentum swing by moving 73 yards on six plays with Winston Dimel finishing it off with a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Wildcats set up the score with Ertz’s 29-yard pass to Zuber and Dimel’s 21-yard blast up the middle.
With the Bears unable to move the ball again, the Wildcats drove 61 yards on 14 plays to set up McCrane’s 21-yard field goal to push the lead to 20-3 with four seconds left in the first half.
Now the Bears will try to take advantage of their bye week before playing Oklahoma State on Oct. 14 in Stillwater.
“It’s a good time, we’ve been through a lot,” Rhule said. “It was a long and hard training camp with adjustments to transitions and all that. A lot of guys have played, a lot of guys are probably just banged up. Hopefully we can get a little bit healthy and find out who wants to continue to get better.”