The Missouri defense pursued Darren Sproles as he sprinted toward the right sideline at Memorial Stadium in the third quarter. The Tigers desperately needed to contain Kansas State’s star running back to preserve a lead that could help save their disappointing season.
With a wave of black shirts blocking his path to the sideline, Sproles abruptly came to a stop, cutting back through a hole in the defense, blazing past the secondary for a 74-yard touchdown run that pulled the Wildcats within a touchdown and highlighted Missouri’s inability to make plays in key situations.
“They overran the play, and I just cut it back to daylight,” Sproles said of his game-changing run.
Wildcat quarterback Allen Webb, who sparked Kansas State (4-5, 2-4 Big 12 Conference) after starter Dylan Meier struggled to move its offense, said the run was the turning point in a game which saved the Wildcats’ slim bowl hopes.
“When Darren broke that long run that got everybody pumped and got everybody into it and they started playing well,” Webb said. “I think that was the starting point.”
Dazzling runs are nothing new for Sproles who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate following a sensational junior season in which he rushed for 1,986 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said this run, though, was among Sproles’ best.
“Darren’s run was a big play,” Snyder said. “Maybe that was as good as any, the run that Darren had.”
Sproles’ set a school record last season against Missouri with 273 yards on 43 carries, but went on to break it with 292 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Before Saturday’s game, Tigers’ coach Gary Pinkel called Sproles a dangerous running back who is always a threat for a big game.
“Sproles, he murdered us last year,” Pinkel said. “He just dominated our football team. We have a lot of respect for him and the great player that he is.”
Following the game, Pinkel said part of the reason Sproles ran for 130 yards against Missouri in the second half was the threat of Webb’s running ability. Sproles agreed with Pinkel’s assessment that it was easier with the fleet-footed Webb taking snaps, but Webb said the defense’s focus was on the All-American running back.
“Playing with Darren Sproles, he takes so much pressure off you as a player because he’s such a playmaker,” Webb said. “They have to really, you know, at all times watch him.”
Sproles proved he deserved the Tigers’s respect with the breathtaking touchdown run, but he also produced 160 yards rushing and another 18-yard score.
Sproles guided the Wildcats back into the game when he outraced the Tigers defense and easily glided into the end zone with 5:33 left in the first half. The touchdown started Kansas State’s comeback.
The Tigers’ showed their respect for Sproles on kickoffs with squib kicks to keep the ball out of his hands. Sproles did not need a return, though. All it took was the pitch and Sproles cutback to send the Tigers’ dwindling spirits spiraling downward.