Freshmen Howard, Vaughn lead No. 16 K-State to West Virginia

Freshmen Will Howard (left) and Deuce Vaughn have ignited the K-State offense.
Charlie Riedel/AP

A pair of freshmen have helped lead No. 16 Kansas State’s rise to the top of the Big 12 standings.

Quarterback Will Howard and running back Deuce Vaughn certainly haven’t done it by themselves, surrounded by some special teams magic and defensive stops along the way.

The Wildcats (4-1, 4-0 Big 12) have won four straight since their head-shaking loss to Arkansas State at home in the season opener.

Kansas State has allowed no more than 21 points in each its last three games and heads to West Virginia (3-2, 2-2) on Saturday with the chance to match its best start in league play since 2014.

The 6-foot-4 Howard has been steady but not perfect since taking over for the injured Skylar Thompson in the third game. The dual threat has thrown three TD passes with one interception and has 116 total rushing yards.

“He hangs in there and does a really nice job,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “If you watched the game and had no idea what age he was, you would not guess he was a true freshman. I just think he’s got a calm and coolness about him.”

The 5-5 Vaughn has established himself among the league leaders in both rushing and receiving yards. The product of Texas was not offered a scholarship by major college programs in his home state.

“I’ve always been overlooked because of my height. It’s just a chip on my shoulder,” Vaughn said. “I feel like that’s why we’re such a great team, because we all have chips on our shoulders for some reason. We all came here to show everybody that we can play football.”

K-State leads the Big 12 in turnover margin at plus-eight. The offense has thrown just one interception and allowed one fumble recovery.

Awaiting the Wildcats is the Big 12′s top defense, by far. Defensive line siblings Darius and Dante Stills have combined for 12.5 tackles for loss. Freshman teammate Akheem Mesidor is second in the league with four sacks and West Virginia has the most overall, but Kansas State has allowed the second fewest.

Kansas State’s defense counters with a solid secondary led by Justin Gardner, who has a league-best seven passes defended and a pair of interceptions, returning one 25 yards for a TD last week. Teammate Jahron McPherson also has two picks.

LATE LOSSES

The typically even-keeled Brown was clearly frustrated after a 34-27 loss at Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders scored on a fourth-quarter fumble return and the Mountaineers couldn’t answer.

West Virginia has been plagued by dropped passes all season, including several late at Texas Tech. The drops helped add up to West Virginia going just 4 of 15 on third downs.

“Three of our Big 12 games have come down to the fourth quarter and we’re 1-2,” Brown said. “We’ve got to find ways as a staff and as players to finish those games.”

DAZZLING BROOKS

Sophomore Phillip Brooks, a former walk-on, became the first player in Kansas State history to return two punts for touchdowns last week in a 55-14 win over rival Kansas. The TD returns covered 55 and 52 yards.

“He’s a talented man but a really humble and hungry kid,” Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said.

Kansas State’s special teams play also includes blocking kicks in four games.

PARKER POSSIBLE

Kansas State defensive back AJ Parker, who returned an interception for a touchdown in a win against TCU, was day to day this week with an ankle injury sustained against Kansas.

“We feel pretty good that it will not be a long-term injury,” Klieman said.

RED-ZONE SUCCESS

Kansas State has scored on all 20 possessions inside the opponents’ 20-yard line this season, including 15 touchdowns. West Virginia is 20 of 21 inside the red zone with 17 touchdowns.

SHOWDOWN LOOMS

Kansas State has a big matchup set Nov. 7 at home against No. 6 Oklahoma State (4-0, 3-0).

The Wildcats know by now it’s a good idea to focus only on the task at hand.

“We remember Arkansas State, and that’s a gut check for all of us,” defensive back Ross Elder said. “We keep that same mindset every week.”