NEW ORLEANS — Bryce Young's decision to opt in to the Sugar Bowl only enhanced his chances of cashing in as a pro.
Young passed for 321 yards and five touchdowns in a game that other top NFL prospects might have skipped, and No. 5 Alabama responded to an early two-score deficit with 35 straight points to defeat 11th-ranked Kansas State 45-20 on Saturday.
“For me it was just about doing everything I can to help the team,” Young said. "We had pride in how we played and how we prepared — us wanting to finish, us wanting to push ourselves and hold each other accountable.”
While a number of pro-bound college stars sat out bowl games that were not part of the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide and Wildcats had their best prospects on the field for the Sugar Bowl and they made a number of memorable plays — from Young's pivotal passes to Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn's 88-yard touchdown run to interceptions by Alabama's Jordan Battle and Brian Branch.
“These guys sent a message to everybody that you create value for yourself by playing football,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It speaks volumes of your character when you choose to be a part of your team and you can be counted on to be part of your team, regardless of the circumstances."
With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, Young was ceremoniously substituted out, raising his right hand to Alabama fans who loudly rose to their feet as the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner trotted to the sideline.
Kansas State coach Chris Klieman asked a member of Alabama's staff to thank Young for playing.
“That’s what college football is about. I was happy Bryce played,” Klieman said. “That was really good for college football and really good for kids to see.”
Jermaine Burton caught three passes for 87 yards and a touchdown for Alabama (11-2). Tide running back Jahmyr Gibbs had 142 yards from scrimmage — 76 rushing and 66 receiving. Young's other touchdowns went to Isaiah Bond (6 yards), Cameron Latu (1 yard), Ja'Corey Brooks (32 yards) and Kobe Prentice (47 yards). Jase McClelland added a 17-yard scoring run.
“We had a little bit of a taste in our mouth that if we had a dominant performance, it would show people that we probably did deserve to do a little better than we did in terms of the playoff picture,” Saban said. “But I’m most proud that there was a team out there that cared.”
Kansas State (10-4) entered its first Sugar Bowl on a four-game winning streak and was riding high after knocking off No. 3 TCU — a CFP team — in the Big 12 title game.
Although Battle's leaping interception of Will Howard ended K-State's opening drive on the Alabama 21, the Wildcats scored the Sugar Bowl’s first 10 points, surging in front on Ty Zentner's 41-yard field goal and Vaughn's long run.
Alabama was on the brink of punting a third time when Young, on third and 10, stepped up in a collapsing pocket and flicked a short pass to Gibbs, who was cutting across the middle and turned up field for 60 yards. Young stepped up similarly to avoid pressure on his touchdown pass to Bond soon after.
Young threw over the top to Burton for 47 yards to setup his scoring pass to Latu that put Alabama in front for good.
Kansas State drove to the Alabama 2 late in the first half — converting two fourth-downs along the way — only to fail on fourth-and-goal when Howard threw out of reach of tight end Ben Sinnott, who was breaking open after Will Anderson fell while trying to cover him.
“I would have done it again,” Klieman said. “I’m never going to second-guess myself."
Young needed just 51 seconds to produce another touchdown, completing passes of 12, 28 and 22 yards before hitting Burton from 12 yards out to make it 21-10 at halftime.
“That was a huge swing in the game,” Saban said.
Kansas State paid for another risk when its onside kick to open the second half was recovered by Alabama, which scored shortly after on Young's strike to Ja'Corey Brooks in the corner of the end zone.
“We came here to win, man,” Klieman said. “We didn’t come here to try to keep this thing close.”
Kansas State: Howard finished 18-of-35 passing for 210 yards. Vaughn rushed for 133 yards on 22 carries. Jordan Schippers had a late 1-yard TD run.
Alabama: The Tide upended the narrative that it doesn't get up for low-stakes bowl games, having lost by two touchdowns in each of its previous two Sugar Bowls that were not part of the BCS or CFP. Alabama has now won 10 Sugar Bowls in 17 appearances.
Kansas State: Opens its 2023 campaign at home against Southeast Missouri on Sept. 2.
Alabama: Hosts Middle Tennessee on Sept. 2 to begin its 2023 season.