At this point, even a narrow loss is a step forward for Iowa State.
The Cyclones played much better Saturday than they did in a 34-14 loss to FCS North Dakota State a week earlier. It just wasn't quite good enough to beat Kansas State.
Jake Waters had an 8-yard touchdown run with 1:30 left to give the 20th-ranked Wildcats a 32-28 victory in the Big 12 opener for both.
Still a loss, but one that was more disappointing than discouraging.
"We've got to make a lot progress," Iowa State's Jarvis West said. "Obviously, you saw from week one to this week, we made a lot of progress on filling gaps and making big plays. We have the talent to do that and we've got to improve every week from here on out."
Waters, from Council Bluffs in western Iowa, threw for 239 yards and ran for a career-high 138 yards to lead the Wildcats (2-0), who trailed 28-13 late in the first half.
On the winning drive, Waters followed a key 23-yard completion to Tyler Lockett with a 25-yard run with just under 2 minutes left. Waters then capped the 80-yard drive that took just 1:31 with his second touchdown run of the day.
Before that, the Iowa State defense had showed signs of being a unit that could hold its own, forcing Kansas State to settle for field goals on two first half drives and getting a big hit from freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya to step Waters on a 2-point conversion try that would that tied the game midway through the fourth quarter.
"As a defense, not even from the coaches, pretty much from the players, we stressed that we should fly around and have fun," defensive end Cory Morrissey said. "Just celebrate plays and go make plays and then celebrate with your teammates. That's what we did."
West sparkled for Iowa State, which needs a big-play receiver after losing Quenton Bundrage to a torn ACL in the opener. The 5-foot-7 slot receiver caught a touchdown pass, threw a TD pass and returned a punt for a touchdown.
"With Q going down, we had to find another option," West said. "Obviously it was me today to step up on the field and be a leader."
It was a tough loss for the Cyclones, who led 28-20 in the third quarter when Kansas State's Randall Evans ripped the ball away from West for an interception. The Wildcats then went 54 yards in 74 seconds, cutting it to 28-26 on a 4-yard TD run by Charles Jones.
Waters looked like he had more than enough space to tie the game on a 2-point conversion run. But Cotton-Moya — who was ejected from last week's loss for targeting — sprinted to the hole, turned Waters sideways at the goal line and preserved Iowa State's lead.
That seemed like it would be the game's key play. But Lockett's crucial reception, which held up upon review, set the athletic Waters up to close the game out with his feet.
"He's a tremendous competitor," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said about Waters. "Obviously, a smart football player. He knows the system and orchestrated it very well. Eighty percent of your team, their responsibility is to not get you beat. There's 20 percent or less -- probably less -- capable of winning the game for you.
"Jarvis West is that for us. Jake Waters is one of those guys. He stepped up and got it done."
Down 13-0, the Cyclones flipped things around by relying on West's versatility.
West kicked off his career day with a leaping 17-yard TD catch. He then took a punt 82 yards for a touchdown and a 14-13 lead early in the second quarter.
"I saw (teammate — DeVondrick Nealy in front of me," West said. "He hit the long snapper and then I just saw nothing but green grass after that."
West capped a brilliant first half with a perfectly thrown 29-yard TD pass to Allen Lazard off a double reverse. That made it 28-13 Iowa State, thrilling a capacity crowd that once seemed resigned to defeat.
West is just the fourth player since 1996 with a passing, receiving and punt return touchdown in the same game, according to STATS LCC.
But it still wasn't enough for the Cyclones and Rhoads, who fell to 0-6 against Kansas State.