K-State rides 4-game win streak back to bowl game

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.