MANHATTAN, Kan. — The longest week for a college football coach is the one following a last-second loss.
It’s going to be two long weeks for Bill Snyder.
Kansas State controlled most of its game against Oklahoma State last Saturday, and led 37-28 with the ball in Cowboys territory in the fourth quarter. But after getting stuffed on third-and-inches and deciding to punt, coach Mike Gundy’s team ripped off two quick touchdowns to steal the win.
The loss followed a trend for the Wildcats: They’ve beaten the teams they are supposed to beat, and come up short — painfully short, on two occasions — against teams that could have turned their season.
"The nature of Kansas State football, it has always been to meet the challenge and having the persistence to work through things like this," Snyder said. "It is a major test of our character, players and coaches alike. I like to believe our guys will respond."
The Wildcats (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) won’t get that chance until visiting Baylor on Nov. 19.
Still, the season has so far shaped up to be one of missed opportunities.
They traveled to Stanford for their opener and took a 26-13 defeat, though in retrospect it’s a game that the Wildcats could easily have won. And considering the Cardinal have been a similarly middling team in the weeks since then, the loss stands out even more.
Oh, and they got a week off to rue that loss, too.
Then, in the Wildcats’ conference opener at West Virginia, they blew a 13-0 halftime and gave up a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 17-16 defeat that was every bit as crippling as this past week’s loss.
Oh, but that loss to the Cowboys.
Kansas State dominated the third quarter to turn a 23-21 deficit into a two-possession lead, and was marching for a score that could have put it away. But after quarterback Jesse Ertz was stacked up on third down at the Cowboys 48, Snyder elected to send the punt unit on the field rather than try again.
When asked why, he replied: "I didn’t want to put our defense in a bad position."
Still, the curious decision came two weeks after Snyder made a similar gamble in a 24-21 victory over Texas. He explained it at the time by saying if his ground-based offense and rapidly improving offensive line couldn’t gain a couple inches, "we might as well go into the locker room."
Running back Charles Jones said he wished the Wildcats would have gone for it, but he and offensive lineman Dalton Risner also said they understood the decision to punt.
"We can argue as much as we want," Risner said, "but if we didn’t get it on third-and-inches, how is coach supposed to expect us to get it on fourth-and-inches? It’s on us."
The loss kept the Wildcats from becoming bowl-eligible for the seventh straight season, though in reality is likely delayed the inevitable. Even if they lose to Baylor — which got waxed by TCU last weekend — there is still a home game against lowly Kansas waiting the following week.
Kansas State also visits the Horned Frogs the first weekend of December.
There were plenty of positives to take away from the game against the Cowboys, of course. Ertz ran for 153 yards and three touchdowns as he continues to become comfortable running the read-option offense, and the Wildcats piled up 345 yards and four touchdowns on the ground as a team.
But the defense also gave up 457 yards and five touchdowns through the air, and couldn’t get a stop when the Cowboys were marching for the decisive scores in the fourth quarter.
"It’s disappointing. There’s so much that could have come with this," defensive end Jordan Willis said. "I couldn’t care less with my senior season, but right now for the team it could have done so much for us. We have a bye week, so we can go back to the drawing board and see where we can go from here."