MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Kansas State players never discussed what they would do if they lost to West Virginia on Saturday night, and had the rare opportunity to play in a bowl game with a losing record.
That's because they never gave themselves the option of losing.
"The whole team had the mindset of earning it," said senior Morgan Burns, who returned a kickoff 97 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-23 victory over the Mountaineers. "I think we all felt strongly about winning this game, the importance of it."
Taking over for the injured Joe Hubener, wide receiver Kody Cook flourished once more as the emergency quarterback, running for a touchdown and hitting Deante Burton with a 77-yard scoring strike that helped the Wildcats (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) climb out of a 13-3 halftime hole.
They went on to win their third straight game, ensuring they'll go to a bowl game for the sixth consecutive year. While not official, the likely destination is the Liberty Bowl.
"There's not a senior in our program that's been involved in a losing season," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "In my way of thinking, that had to be important to them."
Wendell Smallwood ran for 141 yards and a touchdown for West Virginia (7-5, 4-5), but he didn't have the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Instead, quarterback Skyler Howard was stopped by Charmeachealle Moore on fourth-and-2 at their own 46 with 2:33 left to turn over the ball.
The Wildcats picked up enough first downs to essentially run out the clock.
Howard had 281 yards and a touchdown through the air, but it was his inability to pick up the key fourth down on the ground that dropped West Virginia to 0-4 against Kansas State in Big 12 play.
"We beat ourselves," West Virginia wide receiver Jordan Thompson said. "Returning the kickoff for a touchdown was a big change in the game. Credit to K-State. We didn't execute well."
The Wildcats would likely have earned a bowl invite even with a defeat because there are not enough six-win teams to fill all the slots, and a few will be allocated based on Academic Progress Rate. But players said all week that they wanted to reach six wins and truly earn a bowl bid.
It looked like that would be a struggle during a first half dominated by the West Virginia defense, which only surrendered Matt McCrane's 40-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
Josh Lambert hit a pair of first-half field goals for the Mountaineers -- though he also pushed an attempt wide right. But the biggest play in the half came when Howard floated a pass to Jovon Durante in the back of the end zone, the 24-yard strike helping West Virginia to a 13-3 lead at the break.
It was early in the second half that Hubener was crunched by a pair of defenders.
Cook, who has played a handful of games as the emergency QB, entered the fray. He hit Kyle Klein with his first pass attempt before later sneaking in from a yard out for a touchdown.
Kansas State's defense forced a three-and-out to get the ball back, and Cook winged a pass downfield that Burton caught in stride. He out-ran the rest of the defense for a 17-13 lead.
This time, West Virginia answered with a touchdown drive. Smallwood did most of the work, then finished off the march with a 14-yard scamper over the right side to quiet the crowd.
When Lambert hit his third field goal, the Mountaineers led 23-17 with 13:07 left in the game.
That's when West Virginia elected once more to kick to Burns, who broke a 67-yard return earlier in the game. The senior started up field, darted to his left and hit the sideline, utilizing a couple of blocks to reach the end zone for a Big 12 record-tying fourth time this season.
"What they do special-teams wise, I've never been a part of a game where that really was the difference," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "But that's what Kansas State does."
The extra point proved to be the margin of victory.
"I'm disappointed for our guys," Holgorsen said, "but the good news is that we still have another game. I know our guys will regroup and play hard."
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