By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Matt Rhule knows how close this Baylor team is to winning . . . how close the Bears were to winning Saturday afternoon on the road against a Kansas State team picked to contend for the Big 12 title.
For the fifth straight game, they had a chance in the fourth quarter and couldn't get it done, falling to the Wildcats, 33-20, at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"It doesn't mean we're happy," Rhule said. "Those kids in there are pretty broken up right now, because we expected to come in here and find a way to win. . . . They're giving everything they've got, and for a brief respite in the fourth quarter that was a lot of fun. I thought we were going to make enough plays to find a way to win.
"To have the ball with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter in all these games, it's just . . . it's just . . . it's just not happening. But, it will happen."
After a fruitless first half that saw the Bears gain just 80 yards total offense and trailing 20-3 at the break, a much-improved defense and a big-strike offense got them back in the game.
The first drive, though, was more methodical. Zach Smith was 5-of-9 for 51 yards on a 16-play, 65-yard march, but the big play was a 16-yard run off a fake punt by Connor Martin, who was forced into action when Drew Galitz suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff.
"A lot of credit to Connor for stepping up and going out there and running that fake punt. I don't know if he's ever practiced that," Rhule said.
Martin also survived a big shot from K-State cornerback A.J. Parker at the end of the run, popping up quickly and trotting off the field. He was back out there a couple minutes later to connect on a 27-yard field goal that made it a 20-6 game after a drive that took 7:15 off the clock.
Blistered for 229 yards in the first half, the defense forced a three-and-out for just the second time and got the offense the ball back at its own 15. The Wildcats had just 17 yards in the third quarter and 115 in the second half, and finished just 4-of-11 on third down.
"I thought the defense played a lot better," Rhule said. "(Defensive coordinator Phil Snow) made some adjustments. . . . The biggest thing in the first half was we were not real physical, and they were running through us. We challenged them at halftime to be the more physical team. And I thought they certainly tried to do so."
Baylor's first big strike came four plays later, when freshman running back John Lovett took a simple sweep around the right end and turned it into a 74-yard touchdown. Once he got in the clear, Lovett cut back across the field and outsprinted K-State defensive backs Duke Shelley and D.J. Reed for the Bears' first touchdown of the day.
"I couldn't have done it without my o-line," said Lovett, who finished with 95 yards on just seven carries for a 13.6-yard average. "I saw the linebacker blitzing off the edge . . . when I saw the guy blitzing, I just cut off of him, and everything happened. Everyone who drew up the play, it worked out exactly like they said. So, shout out to my linemen."
Lovett said the offense "woke up" in the second half after being shut down for the first 30 minutes of the game.
"We didn't play Baylor football in the first half," he said. "Next time, we have to come out with more energy. That's how we did in the second half. We played a little bit of Baylor football in the second half, but we know we can be a lot better."
When the Wildcats went three-and-out again, going backwards this time, Baylor had the ball down by seven and moving close to midfield when disaster struck. On third-and-1 from the 43, center Sam Tecklenburg's shotgun snap sailed over Smith's head and rolled all the way back inside the 20, with defensive end Kyle Ball pouncing on the loose ball when receiver Tony Nicholson failed to scoop it up.
"I feel like we were going to go down and score," sophomore receiver Denzel Mims said. "And once the snap happened, I was like, `Man, this [stinks]!' We've got to ask ourselves, `What's next?' and move on to the nest drive."
Quarterback Jesse Ertz scored from 15 yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter, pushing the Wildcats' lead back to 27-13.
But, true to his word, Mims and the Baylor offense moved on to the next drive.
He took a perfect strike from Smith on a crossing route, split defensive backs Denzel Goolsby and Kendall Adams, and was off to the races on a 70-yard TD that made it a one-score game again, 27-20, with 13:07 still left in the game.
"Once the safety bailed, and the other safety went down to play the slot receiver on the other side, (I knew)," said Mims, who finished with seven catches for 127 yards. "It was a great pass by Zach. He delivered it right here in my chest. . . . We all just needed to pick it up, including myself. I came out slow, and I was like, `to win this game, we need to pick it up.'''
K-State pushed it back to a two-score game with a 49-yard field goal into the wind by Matthew McCrane, capping off a nine-play, 41-yard drive. And then, McCrane added his fourth field goal of the day three minutes later after Martin botched a punt snap and Andrew Morris fell on it back at the Bears' own 17-yard line.
"Whether it was the snap or the punt . . . those are the plays that happened," Rhule said. "So, we have to look back and say, `OK, we have to continue to correct them.' But, that was a real crucial play in the game, because I think our kids were starting to feel good about where they were."
Even at 0-5, Rhule is also starting to feel good about where the Bears are headed and the progress they've made in the last few weeks.
"I know this hurts. This was a game we thought we could win," he said. "We're going to have to get a lot better. I don't know when that's going to happen. . . . When will we be good enough to win these games? I don't know. I'm definitely pleased with their progress, pleased with their work ethic. We've improved in a lot of areas that's keeping us in games. If we would have played these two teams the first two weeks . . . it might have been pretty ugly."
Baylor gets its only bye week of the season before facing 15th-ranked Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1) on Oct. 14 in Stillwater. The Cowboys bounced back from their only loss of the season to beat Texas Tech, 41-34, Saturday night in Lubbock.