MANHATTAN — Kansas State had been in this situation before, clinging to a lead late in the game, the defense forced to hold on for dear life while an opponent tried to get into position for the winning points.
In the season opener against North Dakota State, the Wildcats folded like a cheap plastic lawn chair. The Bison ran right down field for a touchdown in the final minute that not only ruined Kansas State’s celebration of last year’s Big 12 title, but also raised eyebrows when the score flashed on TV screens everywhere.
On Saturday, Kansas State proved just how far it has come.
The Wildcats managed to hold TCU to a field goal — a 56-yarder at that — rather than let the Horned Frogs score a touchdown in the final seconds. That gave Kansas State enough time to head down field and kick a field goal of its own, one that gave the surging Wildcats a dramatic 33-31 victory.
“Earlier in the year, if that happened, I don’t know if we’d have had the same result,” said quarterback Jake Waters, who engineered the game-winning drive, “but when that happened, when they kicked that field goal, I knew we were still going to win it. That’s what changed from earlier in the year.
“No matter what happens in the game, no matter what kind of adversity we have,” Waters said, “we’re going to win the game regardless. And that’s a good sign for our team.”
Yes, after starting the season 2-4 and dropping its first three conference games, the Wildcats (6-4, 4-3) are just about the hottest team in the Big 12. They’ve rattled off four straight wins capped by their gritty victory over the Horned Frogs to become bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season.
Now, they’ll try to improve their standing down the stretch. Kansas State faces No. 22 Oklahoma on Saturday, and then takes on rival Kansas in its regular-season finale the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Instead of simply eyeing a bowl game, which was no sure thing six weeks ago, Kansas State could rise to the Holiday Bowl — or better — by winning its final two games of the season. And that dramatic turnaround may just prove once more that Wildcats coach Bill Snyder is one of the best in the country.
“The biggest thing that he wanted was for us to mature,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “This was a prime example of not everything going your way. It showed exactly what we learned those first games that we lost, looking back and learning from the adversity. It helps us to keep fighting and fighting.”
The victory over the Horned Frogs, who were eliminated from bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years, was especially satisfying given that it came down to the wire. All four of Kansas State’s losses had been by 10 points or fewer, and none of their wins had been decided by that margin.
In other words, the Wildcats finally proved that they wouldn’t fold when it counted.
“I think we’ve gotten better and better as we’ve worked through the course of the season,” Snyder said, “and we’ve gotten better because we’re learning, I guess, that it’s not just about football. It’s about other things. The players have become a little more value-driven and they have a little more understanding of what it takes to succeed, and the most important thing is they’ve made a genuine commitment.
“Yes,” Snyder acknowledged, “we’re a much better football team today.”
At some schools, becoming eligible for a bowl game is no big deal. Happens every year. But for a school that prior to Snyder was the biggest laughingstock in college football, it’s still a plenty big deal.
The trip — wherever it might be — will mean that the fourth-year seniors will have gone to a bowl game every year they’ve been at Kansas State, the first time that’s happened since a 2003 senior class capped an 11-year run of bowl games. It’ll also be just the 17th bowl game in school history, all but two under Snyder.
Maybe that realization floated through Jack Cantele’s head when he made good on the 41-yard field goal Saturday that gave Kansas State its win over TCU. The sophomore leaped into the air before the ball had even traveled through the uprights, and then sprinted around like a madman in celebration.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was simply the realization that earlier in the season, the outcome of a down-to-the-wire game against a Big 12 foe might have been much different.