MANHATTAN, Kan. –- One thing stood between Missouri and the Big 12 Conference championship game.
A better team.
No. 19 Kansas State dominated Missouri on Saturday, taking an early lead and cruising to a 24-14 win in front of 49,685 at KSU Stadium.
The Wildcats improved to 10-3, 6-2 in the Big 12, and earned a trip to play No. 1 Oklahoma in the conference title game Dec. 6 in Kansas City. Missouri could have earned that distinction with wins against Kansas State and at home against Iowa State on Saturday.
“This was our first attempt at a championship game, and we’ve got a ways to go,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Kansas State’s a great team, and, obviously, we’re not there yet.”
The game wasn’t as close as the score showed. The Tigers (7-4, 3-4 Big 12) fell behind 14-0 in the first half, struggling to move the ball, especially on the ground, and having even more trouble stopping Kansas State running back Darren Sproles.
Missouri quarterback Brad Smith and tailback Zack Abron couldn’t muster much. Smith, who entered the game averaging 108.9 rushing yards, managed 26. Abron, who needed 83 yards to pass Brock Olivo’s school record of 3,026, gained 71 yards on nine carries.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had words of reverence for Smith, even after his team shut him down for the second straight season. Smith had 155 yards on 14-of-28 passing.
“Brad Smith can change a football game in a hurry,” Snyder said. “He is a special player and it is really amazing that we have been so successful containing him for the past two seasons.”
Meanwhile, Sproles put on a clinic all night, rushing for 273 yards on 43 carries. Missouri entered the game ranked sixth in the nation in rushing, but the Wildcats beat Missouri at its own game, grinding it out on the ground.
“They just beat us,” Abron said. “They did a good job at what they did, and they beat us.”
No matter what the Tigers did on defense, Sproles found holes and burst through them. When Missouri forced the play to the outside, Sproles beat them to the corner. When Missouri pinned him inside, Sproles was quicker to the hole.
“The guy is quick, one step and he can change directions on you,” Missouri defensive tackle Russ Bell said. “He’s so small and quick. It’s hard to get a hold on someone like that.”
Despite the offensive disparity, Missouri had chances to get back in it because of two Kansas State turnovers.
With 5:45 left in the half and Kansas State leading 14-0, Missouri got its first big break. Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson tried to fake a handoff to Sproles, but both appeared to be confused about who was taking the ball. Missouri’s Atiyyah Ellison knocked the ball loose, and Brandon Barnes recovered it at the Kansas State 3.
On the next play, Smith rolled right, waiting for someone to get open. Tight end DeQuincy Howard finally got free and Smith hit him in the end zone. Michael Matheny’s point after made it 14-7, but that was as close as Missouri would get.
On the opening series of the second half, Kansas State was driving and appeared poised to put it away. Leading 21-7, the Wildcats had moved the ball to the Missouri 44, but Roberson overthrew the pass, and Nino Williams II intercepted it and returned it to the Missouri 48.
The Tigers couldn’t take advantage, though. After rediscovering Abron, who carried once for 1 yard in the first half, Missouri moved it to the Kansas State 10.
On second-and-8, Smith rolled right, much like he did on the touchdown pass to Howard, but no one got open, and Smith threw into coverage. Louis Lavender intercepted the pass in the end zone and ended the Tigers’ best threat to get back in the game.
The pass was intended for Missouri’s Darius Outlaw, but Lavender managed to get an angle on the ball and step in front of Outlaw.
“I’m still trying to figure out how he got around me in the end zone,” Outlaw said. “He just made a good play. He got around me and picked it off.”
The Wildcats had success from the onset, taking an early lead. After a pass interference call set the Tigers back on the opening possession, Kansas State took over at the Missouri 47. The Wildcats gave the Tigers a steady diet of Sproles, who carried four times for 32 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0.
On the first two plays of the second quarter, Sproles burned the Tigers on the option, a sign of things to come. On two option pitches to the left side, Sproles gained 10 yards to set up first-and-goal and took it in from the 7 on the next play.
Missouri never trailed by more than 17, and Bell said the Tigers felt as though they had a chance to win until the end.
“When you’re only down by two touchdowns the whole game, that’s nothing,” Bell said. “We were trying to put (a comeback) together, just …”
The Tigers tried to mount a late charge when Abron broke a run off right tackle for a 37-yard touchdown. Smith’s 36-yard pass to receiver Sean Coffey down the right sideline set up Abron’s run, which capped a three-play, 80-yard drive.
Missouri tried an onside kick, but Kansas State’s Jesse Tetuan recovered it at the Missouri 43, and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
After Missouri pulled within 14-7 with 5:38 left in the half, Kansas State again took away the Tigers’ momentum. The Wildcats marched 80 yards in 14 plays, and Roberson scored on a quarterback sneak from the 1.
Missouri got it back with 30 seconds left and managed to move the ball to the Kansas State 43 with 2 seconds left. Rather than throw a desperation deep pass, the Tigers tried a long field goal, but Matheny’s 62-yard line drive nailed the crossbar, and Missouri went to the half trailing 21-7.