What could have been just the spark the Kansas State Wildcats needed, instead sent them on a downward spiral.
It was just that kind of day in Ames, Iowa.
After failing to convert a fourth down and goal on an impressive opening drive, the Wildcats never recovered against No. 17-ranked Iowa State on Saturday, watching the Cyclones reel off 28 second-quarter points on the way to a 45-0 victory at Jack Trice Stadium.
With its third straight loss, K-State fell to 4-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12, while
Not only did the inability to find the end zone reverse any momentum gained during a 62-yard drive, but also put a spotlight on the red zone woes that have continued to plague the Wildcats during the losing streak.
The fact that Iowa State turned around and marched 97 yards in 11 plays to trigger the big second quarter and held K-State to 87 yards total offense the rest of the way, just showed what an issue it has become.
"That first drive could have been critical for us to answer a big drive that they have with our own big drive and tie this thing up at seven," K-State coach Chris Klieman said. "I don't know if things change. Maybe they don't, but it sure changes the morale."
Iowa State had opened the game with a 75-yard scoring drive, which put the Wildcats behind the 8-ball early. But K-State started its first possession with a 29-yard completion from Will Howard to Chabastin Taylor, and six plays later had a first-and-goal at the Cyclone 3 following a 13-yard Howard run.
And that's where it ended. A 2-yard loss by Howard, an incomplete pass and a 3-yard Howard gain to the 2 set up a fourth down.
Instead of settling for a field goal, an all-too-common result of late, Klieman elected to go for the touchdown, only to see Howard dropped for a 1-yard loss.
"I can't think of (the play sequence) off the top of my head, but we've got to close out drives, period. We have to," Klieman said. "And that's the reason we needed to go for that.
"We can't keep going down there and getting three points. We need to stick it in and get seven."
Instead, the Wildcats got zero points and Iowa State was off to the races.
"I feel our mindset on offense is, if we don't punch it in that drive, we're just saying when we get the opportunity we're going to do it on the next drive," freshman running back Deuce Vaughn said of the ill-fated opening drive. "Then of course we've got to execute better as an offense.
"Zero and seven points is a big difference, and even three. That's one thing we've got to make sure we hone in on whenever we get ready for these next two games."
Not only did Iowa State turn that stop into a 6 1/2-minute drive with Brock Purdy's 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Kolar on the first play of the second quarter. The Cyclones tacked on three more scores in the period to lead 35-0 at halftime.
"I think we just gave up too many explosive plays," said senior linebacker Cody Fletcher, who along with sophomore Daniel Green was thrown into the starting lineup when Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan were sidelined by COVID-19. "The name of the game for Iowa State is shifts and motions to get us out of alignment.
"For myself, I know they got me out of alignment a few times and I just didn't make a play."
Indeed, Iowa State racked up 539 yards total offense to 149 for K-State. Before giving way to backup Hunter Dekkers at the start of the fourth quarter, Purdy completed 16 of 20 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns, while running back Breece Hall had 135 yards and two touchdowns, also in just three quarters.
For K-State, freshman quarterback Howard was replaced by Nick Ast after an interception late in the second quarter that set up Iowa State's final touchdown of the half. Howard was 3 of 9 passing for 32 yards, while Ast completed 6 of 10 for 44.
"I thought Will took a pretty good shot early in the second quarter and kind of got rattled a little bit because of that shot," Klieman said of his decision to go with Ast, a junior who served as Skylar Thompson's backup last year and moved into a similar role behind Howard this season when Thompson suffered a season-ending injury. "And then after he threw the interception I thought, let's give Nick and opportunity. I didn't think the game was going the right way.
"Let's let Nick have an opportunity and see what he can do; he's earned the right. He's had great practices (and) been with us the whole time."
K-State managed just 73 yards rushing, with Vaughn accounting for 44 on seven carries.
"All props to Iowa State. They're a really good defense," Vaugh said. "They flew around all day and they just made plays."
Iowa State forced three turnovers to none by K-State, another trend over the past three games.
For Iowa State's offense, Xavier Hutchinson had 111 receiving yards and a touchdown on six catches. Hall, a former Wichita Northwest High School standout, had scoring runs of 33 and 21 yards in the second quarter.
In addition to starting linebackers Hughes and Sullivan, K-State was without receiver Malik Knowles and backup defensive tackle Jalen Pickle after a rough two weeks of COVID-19 testing.
"We got hammered with COVID the last two weeks and we can't worry about that," Klieman said. "I know it stinks for the guys when there's a number of guys that can't make the trip because they get pulled for COVID, but we've got to move on from that.
"That's just the reality. That just is going to happen, and it sucks, but nothing they can do about it. They've just got to play with whoever we have and get ready to go."