MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State has dropped two of its first three Big 12 games, sits squarely at .500 at the midway point of the season and now has Texas looming with injury uncertainty at quarterback.
Make no mistake: These Wildcats are wounded.
"You win some, you lose some. You have to keep moving on to the next week," Kansas State linebacker Elijah Lee said. "We have six games left — a half of a season in front of us."
Those six games will determine whether the Wildcats will qualify for a bowl game, build some momentum heading into next season, and perhaps even whether 77-year-old Bill Snyder decides to come back for yet another pursuit of a conference championship in his second go-around as head coach.
The next couple of games are particularly crucial.
First up is Texas, which has looked imminently beatable this season but nearly knocked off the same Oklahoma team that trounced the Wildcats on Saturday. Then comes a trip to Iowa State, which has given a hard time to just about everybody it has played but is still seeking its first league win.
Win those two games and the Wildcats could still salvage a solid season.
Lose both and the season could have slipped away.
Making things even more desperate for the Wildcats is that they could be facing the Longhorns without quarterback Jesse Ertz, who was hurt just before halftime on Saturday. He tried to continue in the second half but pulled himself from the game after attempting one pass.
Joe Hubener, who started after Ertz was lost for the season a year ago, entered in relief and had a hard time moving the offense. He was just 12 of 23 for 157 yards, but a big chunk of that came on a 54-yard touchdown toss to Dominique Heath that took advantage of some rare broken coverage.
Hubener was sacked twice by a Sooners defense that has been regularly shredded.
"I think he was ready," Snyder insisted afterward. "He made some mistakes and threw some balls in the dirt, but I think if you took those away he would grade out comfortably well."
The Wildcats certainly weren’t willing to put the blame on their quarterback. After all, those who were around last season have actually spent more time with Hubener than Ertz on the field.
"I’m already used to Joe," said running back Charles Jones, who was held to 34 yards rushing by the Sooners. "We played with him last year so it wasn’t a big change. I felt he stepped up, made some plays but too little, too late. We all didn’t make the plays."
That has been a common problem for the Wildcats this season.
Their offense was lackluster in a season-opening loss to Stanford, then had to settle for three field goals in a 17-16 loss at West Virginia. Their slow start on Saturday allowed the Sooners to get out to an early lead, forcing them to bail out of what has been a relatively productive run game.
Perhaps more worrying for the Wildcats? Their defense, which had been among the best in Division I football, has been exposed in consecutive games against Texas Tech and the Sooners.
"They weren’t doing anything that we weren’t expecting. It was just struggling on the tackling," Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis said. "Guys were hitting them, but they just weren’t wrapping up — just fundamental things. It’s small things that just didn’t go our way."
Those are the kind of mistakes that were once rarely seen in Snyder-coached teams, but that have become a source of frustration last season and again this season.
"Not doing the assignment that was asked of you was really what happened," Willis said. "It’s a matter of correcting mistakes. It’s the biggest thing we’ve got to do."