The trap was all set for Will Howard.
There he was, playing close to home in front of friends and family in a place that held awful memories. And then with Kansas State holding a slim lead midway through the opening quarter, he made an ill-advised pass that West Virginia safety Malachi Ruffin picked off and returned 43 yards for a touchdown.
Suddenly what was an early 14-0 lead for the Wildcats shrank to just one point, and Howard faced a moment of reckoning. So far, his junior season had been one feel-good story after another as he answered the bell every time starting quarterback Adrian Martinez got hurt.
But hanging over Howard was the cloud of the previous two seasons when he struggled mightily in relief of Skylar Thompson. That was especially true of Kansas State’s last trip to Morgantown and Milan Puskar Stadium, where two years ago he threw three interceptions in a 37-10 Wildcat loss.
“It was big-time, because we could have folded,” Howard said. “I feel like a younger me would have maybe come back a little differently.
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“But after maturing a little bit, I felt like I almost tried to use it as motivation — just come back stronger from it.”
And did he ever. The new, battle-tested Howard didn’t blink. Instead of spiraling downward as might have happened in the past, he dusted himself off, got back on the horse and promptly led K-State 68 yards to a touchdown and a 21-13 cushion.
His only pass on the three-play drive was a 19-yard strike to Phillip Brooks and he was right back in the groove. And Kansas State was on its way to a critical 48-31 Big 12 victory over West Virginia.
The Wildcats, now 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the league, can clinch a trip to Arlington, Texas, to face TCU in the Big 12 championship game if they beat Kansas at home next week in the regular-season finale.
Howard, who grew up a four-hour drive away from Morgantown in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, completed 19-of-27 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns — a 15-yarder to tight end Ben Sinnott early in the second quarter and 43-yard catch-and-run completion to Malik Knowles with 12:24 left to play that pushed the lead to 48-25.
“I definitely had this once circled,” Howard said. “I didn’t have a good memory of being here last, and I wanted to change that and was able to, and I’m really glad that I did that, and we did.
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“Because it was a good team and a really good home team, and this was a big-time, big-quality win, and I’m excited about it.”
And then he got to celebrate it with his family.
“I was just excited to get the opportunity to play in front of them because normally I don’t really have much family (in attendance),” Howard said. “It’s usually one of my parents every game, but this one it was only a four-hour drive for me, so I was fired up to be able to play for them and just be able to look up and see all of them.”
K-State coach Chris Klieman was equally pleased for his quarterback.
“Will was really good,” Klieman said. “Will Howard is playing at a really high level, and one of the most improved players probably in college football is Will Howard.
“And I can’t be more happy for the guy because he’s worked his tail off.”
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So what words did Klieman have for Howard after the interception to help get him back on track?
“I didn’t say anything to him,” Klieman said. “That kid’s playing with so much confidence. He made a bad throw.
“Luckily we were able to go right back on the field on offense. The throw he made to Sinnott in the end zone was a big-time throw on the run, and then he threw a great one to Malik (and) Malik made a guy miss. Will’s a seasoned vet now, and I don’t need to say anything to him and he responded.”
Running back Deuce Vaughn, who has seen Howard through his ups and downs, was impressed by the poise his quarterback showed after the interception.
“To come back and throw an absolute dart, a strike to Phillip Brooks kind of gave him his confidence back right then and there,” said Vaughn, who rushed for 67 yards, including a 15-yarder on the opening drive to put K-State in front for good. “And then for him to push the ball down the field and give our playmakers the ability to make plays out in space in the passing game.
“He was spreading the ball around. Man, the way he commanded the offense was big-time.”
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The game was Howard’s fourth this season, which means if he so much as takes a snap in another game he’ll burn his redshirt. But he’s said he’s fine with that, and why not?
In his four games, two as the starter and two in relief of Martinez, K-State has won three. In the lone loss — 38-28 at TCU on Oct. 22 — he led the Wildcats to four touchdowns.
His ability to rebound from the early interception was just another step in his maturation.
“I think it’s big for me personally, and for us as an offense, to be able to show that we can bounce back from adversity,” Howard said. “I know that this team is so good at handling adversity and bouncing back from it and staying neutral.
“Every game, not everything is going to go perfect, and obviously I want that play back for myself. It was not a good play by me. But at the end of the day, our ability to come back and put more points on the board, just keep things rolling, was huge.”
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @arnegreen.