This Kansas State football season could’ve died right there at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, before a national audience on a brand-new national sports network, alone on the big stage under the Friday night lights. North Dakota State 24, Wildcats 21 could’ve killed it outright.
It could’ve ended on Sept. 21, when Texas pulled up its big boy pants and pummeled K-State for the first time in a decade.
It could’ve ended on Oct. 5 in Stillwater, when a lead slipped agonizingly away, or on Oct. 12, when it was the same script, only this time with Baylor making the Houdini escape.
It seemed as if any time coach Bill Snyder settled on a particular quarterback, said quarterback would reward him with a turnover that felt like a sucker punch straight to the kidneys. The defense looked tired and green, or green and tired, depending on the week.
At 2-4, tents could’ve been folded.
At 6-4, they can now be pitched, confidently, somewhere in Texas or California during late December.
Somewhere warm, probably. Somewhere sun-kissed and gorgeous, lands where snowplows are merely creatures of myth.
At 2-4, this was setting up to be the season to get your payback against the Jedi Master for two autumns of being Collin-Kleined-left and Collin-Kleined-right into submission.
At 6-4, this is the one team — outside of perhaps Baylor and Oklahoma State — that nobody else in the Big 12 wants to play right now.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Texas Bowl.
Or a Holiday Bowl.
Or a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
K-State clinched postseason eligibility Saturday night on a 41-yard Jack Cantele field goal with three seconds left, holding off TCU 33-31. So how does a season shift from Bison to blue cheese, seemingly on a dime?
The short answer is that the defense matured, that it gelled around veteran safety Ty Zimmerman, that defensive end Ryan Mueller turned into a poor man’s J.J. Watt.
The long answer? Well, the long answer is layered.
Over the first month and change of a young season, these Wildcats preached Snyder’s eternal verities — run the ball, protect the ball, don’t beat yourself — but they rarely practiced them.
In Week 1 against North Dakota State, they managed just 41 yards rushing and couldn’t get the Bison off the field. In Week 2 against Louisiana-Lafayette, the rushing was up to 149 yards, but it felt sporadic.
Fast forward to last weekend in Lubbock. K-State ran for 291 yards against a fairly porous Texas Tech defense. But they followed that up with 154 more on Saturday against TCU, the closest thing the Big 12 has to a Michigan State, defensively. What used to sputter now, more often than not, hums.
Also, there’s this: Over their first five contests, the Wildcats were a combined -9 in turnover ratio. They went 2-3. Over their past five: a more Snyderesque ratio of +6, a stretch in which they’ve gone 4-1.
In the Big 12, you make your own luck.
Although, every once in a freaky while, Lady Karma tosses you a bone straight outta left field. On this crazy weekend, it happened to be two guys coming out on the Horned Frogs’ punt return team wearing the same number.
Game ball to you, No. 2.
And you, too, No. 2.
And one for the TCU equipment manager, too. And the guy whose job it is to count the bodies on special teams before trotting them out there.
In a second half that featured six lead changes, the wildest, weirdest moment came early in the fourth quarter, the hosts down 28-27. The Wildcats punted on fourth down, trying to pin the Froggies deep inside their own territory.
After the kick, out came the hankies. It turns out TCU had two players on the return team — do-everything utility man Trevone Boykin and cornerback Jason Verrett — wearing the No. 2.
In a penalty you probably haven’t seen called quite this way before, and might never see called quite this way again, the Frogs were flagged for “illegal equipment,” which set up a Wildcat first down and sprung the drive back to life. A drive which wound up taking 8:47 off the clock in 13 plays, capped by a 23-yard Cantele field goal that put K-State up by two.
Because, sometimes, it’s just your month. And speaking of: Since 2010, Snyder’s Wildcats are 10-4 in November and 8-2 since 2011.
It’s about how you finish.
And, in this particular case, it’s also about where.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.