MANHATTAN — It probably wasn’t the most happy of Thanksgivings for seventh-ranked Kansas State.
The Wildcats had climbed ever so slowly to No. 1 in the BCS standings before losing two weeks ago at Baylor, ending their perfect season along with their national championship dreams.
And due to a quirk in the schedule, they had last week off, giving them some extra time to stew over what will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest disappointments in school history.
It also gave Kansas State time to prepare for its final exam, though.
The Wildcats return to the field for their home finale Saturday against No. 23 Texas. They can wrap up the Big 12 title and earn the league’s automatic BCS bowl berth with a win, or if No. 12 Oklahoma loses to TCU earlier in the day.
“We definitely need to get back on track. There’s definitely that mentality,” said quarterback Collin Klein, whose Heisman Trophy hopes took a hit that Saturday night in Waco.
“I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it anger, but there’s a lot of motivation and buildup of we just need to get back on track. Our last two performances haven’t been stellar. There’s a lot of motivation there. I don’t know if it’s anger, but there’s some motivation, no doubt.”
The Wildcats (10- 1, 7-1) had become one of the nation’s trendiest teams behind the stoic play of Klein, the unwavering leadership of 73-year-old coach Bill Snyder, and a defense that had managed to ground some of the most potent offenses in the entire country.
Klein made the cover of Sports Illustrated. National programs were doing segments on the Wildcats. The stretch of Interstate 70 from Kansas City to tiny Manhattan, became just a little bit busier as Kansas State kept piling up victory upon victory.
But then the Wildcats headed to Baylor, and everything unraveled.
Klein threw three interceptions in arguably his worst game as a starter, and was held to just 39 yards on the ground. Running back John Hubert managed only 43 yards rushing, while that stone-wall defense was shredded by quarterback Nick Florence and the Bears’ running backs.
Lache Seastrunk ran for 185 yards and a touchdown. Glasco Martin had 113 yards and three more scores. Florence accounted for nearly 300 yards and three more touchdowns.
The result wasn’t just a loss, but a 52-24 humiliation.
Snyder admitted he was angry with the result, not merely disappointed. And he said that attitude was embraced by the rest of the team — the Wildcats let the biggest opportunity in school history slip through their fingers, countless hours of grueling work sullied by one poor night.
“If that attitude does persist, I would hope it would be throughout our team, and not be exclusive to one particular group,” Snyder said. “We’ve won collectively and our loss is a collective loss, and our preparation needs to be collective and our attitude just the same.”
Wildcats senior kicker Anthony Cantele was the first to acknowledge feeling the same raw emotion that Snyder experienced in the hours after the game, but said things have started to change.
“At first there was some anger that set in,” Cantele said, “but once we started to practice, we realized, especially the seniors, this is our last chance to play at home.”
Yes, along with potentially playing for a conference championship and a spot in a BCS bowl game, the Wildcats will also be bidding farewell to a senior class that helped re-establish the program.
Most of them were recruited to Kansas State by former coach Ron Prince, but they were quickly embraced by Snyder, who managed to massage and mold them from a five-win team into one that’s won at least 10 games in two consecutive years, and is poised to capture only the third conference championship in school history on Saturday.
“I think it’d be very meaningful. It’d be a lifelong memory, I’m sure, or I’d like to think it would be for all of them,” Snyder said. “Something you take a great deal of pride in because they had such a major role coming through the program over this period of time.”
Klein admitted that running onto the field Saturday will be emotional.
He was among those recruited by Prince. He spent time as a wide receiver before making the switch to quarterback, and has blossomed into one of the best players in school history.
Rather than all that anger he felt after losing to Baylor, Klein said, he expects to feel a pang of sentimentality, and buckle his chinstrap one more time and get ready for the Wildcats’ final exam against Texas.
“Coach Snyder always talks about finishing,” Klein said. “As a senior, for all of us as seniors, being able to finish strong is what we want, no doubt.”