With its quarterback of the future seemingly decided, Kansas State will bid to close the season with a fifth win in six games when it meets UCLA in the Cactus Bowl.
Skylar Thompson, a redshirt freshman, not only took over at quarterback late in the season, he charged the Wildcats with some late-game heroics. He rallied Kansas State from an 11-point deficit to win in overtime at Texas Tech and also led a quick getaway before they held on to win at Oklahoma State.
In the last game of the regular season, he engineered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including one in the final 1:55 that covered 83 yards as Kansas State tipped Iowa State 20-19 and tied for fourth in the Big 12 with marks of 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the conference.
The finish could still be considered a disappointment after the Wildcats were picked third, but they at least rebounded from a dismal stretch of three successive losses to begin league play 1-3.
"It was a very disappointing time during the stretch in the middle," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "As you would for, expect and ask of your players, I thought they responded quite well. They obviously played well in the last several ballgames. Last year when we came back and finished the season quite well at the end, that propelled us into the bowl game."
That was in the Texas Bowl, where Kansas State toppled Texas A&M. The Wildcats also won their last visit to the Copper Bowl, beating Michigan in 2013. Those are their only victories in seven previous bowls under Snyder in his second stint as Kansas State coach.
The emergence of Thompson materialized after two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart were sidelined with season-ending injuries, Jesse Ertz (knee) and Alex Delton (concussion). Even Thompson missed most of the practices prior to the Iowa State game, when he also dealt with a sore knee.
"I would just say I'm not scared. I'm fearless of the moment," Thompson said. "When all eyes are on me, I don't think about it and I almost invite that. I love that, everybody looking at me to make a play and win the game."
The last two victories got the Wildcats bowl-eligible and they were chosen for the Dec. 26 Cactus Bowl clash, which will pit them against UCLA (6-6) for the second time in four years after falling 40-35 against the Bruins in the 2014 Alamo Bowl.
UCLA fired coach Jim Mora on Nov. 19 and replaced him with Chip Kelly, though offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will serve as interim coach for the bowl game. He confirmed the Bruins' junior quarterback, Josh Rosen, was practicing. Rosen is a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft if he declares.
Rosen has passed for 3.717 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and leads a UCLA passing attack that ranks fifth nationally with a 345.3-yard average.
"It appears as if (UCLA) had a rough season, kind of like we did with injuries, and they had the turmoil that comes with staff change," Snyder said.