MANHATTAN — Nobody was talking about bowl games at Kansas State in mid-October, when the Wildcats were sitting at 2-4 and feeling bruised and battered after a loss to Baylor.
Nobody was giving up on the season, either.
So with the kind of steadfast resolve that has become a hallmark under Bill Snyder, Kansas State flipped the script. The Wildcats ripped off four straight wins to become bowl eligible, and then finished off their regular-season with a 31-10 rout of Kansas on Saturday.
The most likely destination now is the Holiday Bowl, where the Wildcats are 3-0.
“You know, I’m proud of the fact that they’ve come back,” Snyder said Saturday, “that they didn’t give into it and move in a different direction.”
It could have easily happened.
There was the disheartening loss to North Dakota State on the same day the school dedicated a massive renovation to the stadium that bears Snyder’s name. There was the underwhelming performance at Texas, and the back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor.
None of them were by more than 10 points. But not all of them were close, either.
Yet a team that had to replace nine starters on defense, not to mention Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein at quarterback, somehow managed to turn things around. Part of it had to do with the sagely Snyder, who usually knows how to pull the right strings. But a big part of it had to do with the simple stubbornness that comes from a program that’s grown accustomed to success.
“What we can take out of this is we never gave in,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “We kept fighting back, fighting back, regardless of the close games we lost. We came back the next game.
“We have a great coaching staff,” Lockett added, “and they kept believing in us, and that’s all we needed. We just kept pushing and pushing.”
Now, the trick is to finally end a bowl-game losing streak. Kansas State has lost all three that it’s played since Snyder returned from a brief retirement, and five straight going all the way back to his first tenure. Ron Prince lost the only bowl game he coached in 2006.
Incidentally, the Wildcats’ last victory was in the 2002 Holiday Bowl.
“It’s an awesome feeling to be bowl-eligible again, but I haven’t won one since I’ve been here,” said wide receiver Tramaine Thompson, a senior. “I really want to go out with a bang.”
Quarterback Jake Waters, who split time with Daniel Sams most of the season, said there’s a feeling of confidence as the Wildcats begin their month-long bowl preparation. They may have lost to Oklahoma last week, but they rebounded nicely against the Jayhawks.
Running back John Hubert ran for a career-high 220 yards, Waters accounted for three touchdowns and a defense that went through quite the roller-coaster came up with six turnovers.
“We’re going into our bowl game with a win instead of two straight losses. That’s huge,” Waters said. “Then not playing as well as we want, that’s going to keep us hungry for bowl prep.”
Snyder shouldn’t have any problem with hunger.
Even as the marching band played the fight song and hundreds of Kansas State fans waited to celebrate a win over their rivals on Saturday, the 74-year-old coach stood in the shadows of the bleachers in Lawrence and lamented the many close calls of this season.
Yes, the Wildcats finished 7-5. But the defending Big 12 champs could have done so much better.
“It’s like it would be for anybody, what you really remember, you remember the losses,” Snyder said. “And the biggest margin was 10 points. There wasn’t a ballgame we played that we didn’t have our chances, so that’s the frustrating experience. One of our players said last night, they asked to define the season in one word, and one of the players said, ‘Frustrating.’
“It is, but it doesn’t take away from how much I appreciate the young people in our program.”
It also doesn’t take away from the way they kept fighting, either.