MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Bill Snyder saw it coming all week in practice.
The missed tackles. The dropped passes. The lousy blocking, terrible execution and distressing lack of focus gave the Kansas State coach trepidation with North Texas coming to town.
If not for another gutsy performance by Collin Klein, and a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Tyler Locket, the No. 15 Wildcats might have been saddled with an embarrassing defeat before heading into next Saturday’s showdown against fifth-ranked Oklahoma.
Instead, they managed to eke out a 35-21 victory on Saturday night.
“If you don’t prepare yourself well then most anything can happen,” Snyder said afterward. “It was the attitude we took into the ballgame. There wasn’t anything else to blame it on.”
Of course, Snyder was also quick to credit North Texas.
The Mean Green (1-2) scratched and clawed their way within 14-13 late in the third quarter before Klein hit and Tramaine Thompson for their second touchdown. John Hubert tacked on a TD run moments later, and Klein’s fourth-quarter score allowed the Wildcats (3-0) to escape.
Albeit with a far less impressive showing than last week’s 52-13 romp over Miami.
“North Texas is better than people think, first of all,” said Klein, who passed for 230 yards and accounted for three scores. “There was a lot of emotion coming off a big game, but the great teams are the exact same no matter who the opponent is.”
Evidently, the Wildcats are still in search of greatness.
“There probably isn’t anything that doesn’t need vast improvement,” Snyder said. “It’s taking something for granted. We didn’t practice well Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.”
North Texas nearly made them pay for it, too.
Derek Thompson was 25 of 28 for 208 yards and a late TD pass for the Mean Green, who converted the 2-point conversion to get within two touchdowns with 2:31 remaining in the game. An onside kick was recovered by the Wildcats, though, allowing them to run out the clock.
“My football team came here believing that we could win, not hoping that we could win,” said North Texas’ Dan McCarney, who regularly faced the Wildcats when he was the coach at Iowa State.
“I didn’t sense any hope that we could go win a game. I sensed in our preparation and from watching on the sidelines this team really believed we could win the game,” McCarney said. “But we weren’t good enough to do it tonight.”
Still, North Texas held its Big 12 opponent to 143 yards rushing — Kansas State entered the game sixth nationally at better than 300 yards per game — while holding the ball an astonishing 37 minutes, 4 seconds, which prevented the Wildcats from getting into a rhythm.
Kansas State ran six offensive plays in the first quarter.
“We ran the ball well when we needed to, and we kept our defense off the field,” Derek Thompson said. “Like I said, unfortunately we just didn’t execute when we needed to.”
They were executing early in the game, though. Brelan Chancellor capped an 11-play, 55-yard drive with a 6-yard scoring run midway through the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
That’s when Lockett fielded the ensuing kickoff at his 4-yard line. He started up field, angled to his left and found a seam down the sideline for his third career kick return touchdown, pulling the Wildcats into a 7-all tie without their offense having to take the field.
“That was major,” Snyder said. “That was probably the difference in the game.”
The game was still tied when North Texas ended a promising drive with a blocked field goal attempt. The Wildcats capitalized on the miscue, moseying downfield in five plays before Klein went over the top to Tramaine Thompson, whose 38-yard touchdown catch gave Kansas State the lead.
The Mean Green had a chance to pull even on the first drive of the second half, using nearly half of the third quarter to move 88 yards. Antoinne Jimmerson’s short TD run capped the 14-play drive, but the extra point was wide right and Kansas State clung to a one-point lead.
Klein hit Thompson a few minutes later, this time from 21 yards, and Hubert and Klein tacked on their fourth-quarter TD runs to finally allow the Wildcats — and the purple-clad faithful — to start looking ahead to next weekend’s showdown at Oklahoma.
Just in case they hadn’t been already this week.
“Across the board, I didn’t think we played like we were capable of playing,” Snyder said. “We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth most of the game.”