MANHATTAN — Chris Klieman called it bigger than last week's victory at No. 3-ranked Oklahoma.
It certainly was every bit as nerve-racking.
After squandering a two-touchdown halftime lead against Texas Tech and trailing by four points with 11 minutes left, Kansas State turned to a pair of true freshmen for answers down the stretch Saturday night and they delivered.
Quarterback Will Howard, pressed into duty when senior starter Skylar Thompson went down with an injury in the second quarter, engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives while running back Deuce Vaughn added to his highlight-reel resume in a 31-21 come-from-behind victory over Tech at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"I'm so proud of the fact that we were able to come back after being down 21-17, and I told the guys in the locker room that, as great a win as the Oklahoma one was the week before, this was bigger," said Klieman, whose Wildcats improve to 2-1 overall, 2-0 in the Big 12. "Because we had to bounce back from a big road win and we came back and played really well against Texas Tech and found a way to win."
Texas Tech (1-2, 0-2), also led by a backup quarterback, scored on its first three possessions of the second half to go up 21-17 when junior Henry Colombi found Myles Price in the end zone for 13 yards with 11:11 left. But the Wildcats struck right back, going 75 yards in three plays to regain the lead.
Howard who won the backup quarterback job in preseason camp, found tight end Briley Moore on the right sideline for a 66-yard catch and run to the Tech 4, where Harry Trotter ran it in on the next play.
Tech had two more chances, but a Jahron McPherson end zone interception squashed one drive, and a holding penalty that forced the Red Raiders to punt with under four minutes left set up more heroics by Vaughn.
After Howard found Chabastin Taylor for a first down that forced Texas Tech to spend its last timeout, the Wildcats faced third down and 5 at their 30-yard line when Vaughn and Howard both found the matchup they were looking for.
"We came out and they wanted to blitz, and then I ended up hopping out wide," Vaughn said. "And they got jumbled up and put a linebacker on me, and they'd been putting safeties or nickels on me throughout the game, and then they put (Jacob Morgenstern) on me, who was a linebacker.
"Right then I kind of looked at Will and Will kind of looked at me and I beat him across his face and got to running."
Did he ever. After catching the pass up the middle for a first down, Vaughn broke a tackle and was off to the races, going 70 yards with 2:07 to play.
"When you've got Deuce one-on-one with the linebacker, I'm going to take that every day of the week," Howard said. "He's a great player, a great playmaker, and he just did what Deuce does and he made a great play.
"All I had to do was get it into his hands."
Vaughn had his first 100-yard rushing day with 113 and a touchdown on 16 carries and also caught three passes for 81 yards. But he also took it as a learning moment when he took Howard's pass to the end zone.
With Tech out of timeouts, he could have stopped short, allowing the Wildcats to run out the clock.
"I'm going to have to learn to go down before getting to the end zone just so we can kneel it down and get out of there and not giving them another chance," he said.
Klieman said he had no update on Thompson's condition, though the senior did return to the sideline in the second half, offering support and advice for Howard.
K-State led 14-0 at halftime, thanks to a blocked punt and a methodical 97-yard drive, not to mention a pair of missed Texas Tech field goals.
Thompson went down in the middle of a 97-yard drive when he took a hit with 7:46 left in the half that resulted in a roughing-the-passer call and subsequent ejection for Tech linebacker Riko Jeffers. The Wildcats finished it up on back-to-back runs of 20 and 18 yards by Vaughn to lead 14-0. The drive took 6:49 off the clock.
K-State opened the scoring with 8:56 left in the first quarter on a 12-yard pass from Thompson to Moore. The touchdown was set up by Seth Porter's blocked punt that put the ball at the Texas Tech 20.
But Tech took the second-half kickoff and put together an 18-play, 88-yard drive with Colombi hitting KeSean Carter with a 3-yard scoring pass. After Blake Lynch's 28-yard field goal pushed K-State's lead back to 10, Xavier White burst 49 yards up the middle for a touchdown that cut it to three, and on the next series the Red Raiders took the lead.
"I told the guys we faced an awful lot of adversity through the week, we faced an awful lot of adversity, obviously, today with guys going down and different things," Klieman said. "But we kept battling through the adversity and they were not going to let each other down.
"We're just going to keep preaching that to the guys — 'Play for the guy next to you, play for each other' — and that's what they did."
The Wildcats finished with 404 yards total offense, achieving near-perfect balance with 198 rushing yards and 206 through the air. In addition to Vaughn, they got 43 yards from Trotter, while Howard was 7 of 12 passing for 173 yards, and Moore caught two passes for 78.
Colombi was 30-for-42 passing for 244 yards and two touchdowns and an interception. White rushed 12 times for 113 yards and Carter caught eight passes for 52. Tech finished with 471 yards total offense.
K-State goes on the road next Saturday to face TCU at 3 p.m. in Fort Worth, Texas.