'It was a gutsy call': How a big fourth-down conversion saved the day for Kansas State
MANHATTAN — In Chris Klieman's mind, Kansas State had come too far to let West Virginia walk away with yet another victory over his Wildcats.
So with K-State clinging to a seven-point lead and all the momentum with the Mountaineers, he decided to put the game in quarterback Skylar Thompson's hands.
West Virginia had just scored on two straight possessions and a Wildcat drive appeared to stall at the Mountaineer 39-yard line. But on fourth down and 8, Klieman went for broke and Thompson delivered a 35-yard strike to Sammy Wheeler.
One play later, with 7 minutes, 22 seconds left, Deuce Vaughn ran it in from the 4-yard line and the Wildcats were up 31-17. Next thing you know, the defense forced a turnover that led to a short Chris Tennant field goal and the Wildcats were celebrating a 34-17 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"We had not done a great job of stopping those guys late in the third quarter," Klieman said of his decision to go on fourth down. "I thought we'd get something out of the third down — I don't know if it was third-and-14 or third-and-15 — and I said, 'Mess (offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham), we're going to go for it on fourth down.'
"I didn't hesitate. I looked at Skylar and I said, 'This is yours, what do you like? Because we've got to get a first down. We didn't come here to try to hang on to win, we came here to try to win the football game.'"
Thompson, a sixth-year senior, didn't flinch.
With Wheeler surrounded, he zipped the ball down the middle and the junior from St. James Academy in Lenexa hauled it in.
"It's exciting, just the look in (Klieman's) eyes that he had, making that decision," Thompson said. "Just knowing he has confidence in me and that he has confidence in our offense.
"Whenever we get the green light like that, it's time to go make a play. It was a big play in the game and we needed that first down, so it was good for our football team."
With the victory, their fourth in a row, the Wildcats improved to 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12. They also ended a five-game losing streak against West Virginia.
For Wheeler, a converted quarterback, it was the second of two big plays. He also caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to open the second half that put K-State up 24-3.
"Sammy just keeps getting better and better, and he's stayed healthy this year, knock on wood," Klieman said. "I thought the touchdown catch and the pass Skylar threw to him in the end zone was a huge play.
"Third and goal from the 4 and we kind of give a little bit of a play-action look and he beats the guy inside and Skylar's got to throw a bullet that's low, and Sammy's got really good hands and made a big play."
Wheeler, who came into the game with seven catches for 58 yards, finished the day with three more for 45 and his second career touchdown. But it was the fourth-down play that stood out most of all.
"It was a gutsy call. I'm just glad (Klieman) trusted us to make a play and gave us the opportunity," Wheeler said. "(West Virginia) kind of checked cover-three so it was perfect for that play.
"We got a good look there and I just turned around and looked and the ball was in the air and I blacked out from there."
Center Noah Johnson wasn't surprised that Thompson and Wheeler came through.
"Any time you put the ball in Skylar's hands to make a play, he makes plays," Johnson said. "Credit Sammy Wheeler. That's what happens when you listen to a lot of Adele. You make big-time plays.
"That was just a big-time play, and coach Klieman giving us the go-ahead and coach Mess always stresses us, no matter what, if it's fourth and 20, we're expected to get it if it's called to go on fourth down."
Vaughn, who also had a big day with 121 yards rushing on 25 carries, was a spectator on the fourth-down play.
"Man, it was one of the best throws I've seen on the field," he said. "Just the way that it flew through the air, it was zipped.
"I looked up over and saw Sammy between three guys and I was like, 'All right.' It whipped in there and hit him in the numbers and it was one of those things where it was an absolute dart."
With the conversion, K-State now is 12 of 14 on fourth down this season.
"I've got a lot of confidence and trust in Skylar and our offense and coach Mess and the plan that (if) we can get another set of chains, it keeps their offense on the sideline," Klieman said of the fourth-down success. "It chews up another three or four minutes, typically.
"We came into this game trying to win it and that's what we decided on the fourth and 8. We're not going to try and hang on and see if we can beat these guys. We said we needed to try to win it. I know the guys were happy that we made the decision to go for it on fourth."