MANHATTAN — Kansas State was minutes from losing to Eastern Kentucky. A goal line stand from getting beat at Miami. And trailed most of the way against Baylor.
The Wildcats won all of ‘em.
Now they’re back in the AP Top 25.
Once a staple of the national polls under Bill Snyder, the Wildcats used a 36-35 upset of then-No. 15 Baylor on Saturday to enter at No. 20 this week. It’s the first time Kansas State has been ranked since 2007, and the highest since it was No. 13 in 2004.
“It’s a good feeling,” said wide receiver Chris Harper. “We said we were confident, that we could play with everybody, and I think people might be starting to take notice of that.”
It’s hard to miss it.
Sure, expectations took a hit in the season opener, when the Wildcats needed Collin Klein’s long touchdown pass with less than 2 minutes left to beat a team from the Football Championship Subdivision. A lackluster win over Kent State didn’t do much to change opinions.
But then last week at Miami, the heavy underdogs repelled the Hurricanes four straight times at the goal line to preserve a 28-24 victory. And on Saturday, Kansas State rallied for 10 unanswered points in the final 5 1/2 minutes, getting a go-ahead field goal from Anthony Cantele with 3:10 remaining for a confidence-boosting victory over the Bears.
A victory that boosted Kansas State right back into the national spotlight.
“It was good that we showed a little maturity,” said Klein, who accounted for 259 yards of total offense and three touchdowns against Baylor. “We didn’t allow an emotional high from last week ultimately affect us down the stretch.”
While the Big 12 heavyweights are still to come — No. 3 Oklahoma visits at the end of the month — the Wildcats’ schedule gives them have a chance to keep on climbing.
They host Missouri on Saturday before visiting Texas Tech and Iowa State.
“It’s all about learning from our mistakes and growing,” said linebacker Arthur Brown, whose interception of Baylor’s Heisman Trophy candidate, Robert Griffin III, set up Cantele’s go-ahead field goal in the closing minutes Saturday.
“That was a great win for us and something we can grow from as a team.”
The victory was the first for Kansas State over a ranked team since 2007, when it beat then-No. 7 Texas, and its first at home since a 45-42 win over the Longhorns in ‘06.
It was also the first victory over a ranked team under Snyder, who’s in his second go-around as head coach, since Kansas State upset then-No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2002 Big 12 title game. The Wildcats went on to lose to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl that season.
But that team, led by running back Darren Sproles and quarterback Ell Roberson, was expected to compete with the nation’s elite.
This year’s team was not.
Kansas State parlayed a mediocre season into an invite to the Pinstripe Bowl last year, where it lost to Syracuse in snowy Yankee Stadium. But with running back Daniel Thomas off to the NFL a year early and quarterback Carson Coffman having graduated, nobody really knew what to expect of a team quietly toiling out in the Kansas prairie.
Klein has proven serviceable at quarterback, though, his running ability posing more danger to defenses than his funky pass delivery. John Hubert has picked up the slack at running back, going for a career-high 166 yards in the win over Miami. And a talented corps of wide receivers led by Harper has caught just about everything thrown its direction.
The defense, the most glaring weak spot last season, has undergone a makeover.
Brown, a former top recruit who sat out last season after transferring from Miami, has lived up to lofty expectations anchoring the middle of the linebacking unit. Jared Voelker is terrorizing quarterbacks from his spot at defensive end, and an undersized defensive backfield has shown a bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
The same mentality embraced by the rest of the team.
The same one that has Kansas State off to a 4-0 start.
“There’s just a great bond within the program, within our team,” Brown said. “We really see each other and feel as if we’re family. That’s what creates that bond, going out there and playing for each other. That’s what creates that atmosphere.”