With K-State, you’ll remember the margins — and the magic

Bill Snyder's Wildcats didn't run out of juice in Friday night's Alamo Bowl. They just ran out of time.

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You’ll remember the margins, especially the finer ones. The six points versus Auburn. The 11 at Baylor. The five on Friday night versus UCLA. Any of those games could have turned on their heads — a break here, a whistle there, a kick, a fingertip. Maybe, if the football gods were just, a strong 9-4 looks more like an epic 11-2, the second 11-win campaign for Kansas State’s football program in three years.

Then again, there was the four at Iowa State, the six at West Virginia and the very, very, very, very, very big one at Oklahoma, the Great Escape in Norman. The Wildcats were 3-2 in games decided by six points or fewer, counting a wild, loopy 40-35 loss to the Bruins in the Alamo Bowl. Over time, these things tend to even out.

And good is good, and good should be celebrated, especially when it scrapes the ceiling of great so many times. The good will be what sticks, because it was unrelenting, even when the moment seemed most dire.

UCLA 31, Kansas State 6, the score at the half, was dire, indeed. But rather than be read their last rites, the seniors in purple started getting in their last shots.

Jake Waters set a new single-season K-State record with 3,501 yards through the air. When the exterior walls of the pocket started crumbling, center B.J. Finney moved out to right tackle to try and stem the tide.

Defensive end Ryan Mueller left everything on the field, same as always, forcing a fumble at the UCLA 30 with seven minutes in the third quarter and racking up a sack with 11:47 to go in the fourth.

On fourth-and-6, down 34-21 and with less than seven minutes to work with, Curry Sexton zigged for 18 yards to the UCLA 24, then zagged for another 12 on first down.

Tyler Lockett snared 13 receptions for 164 yards and two scores. Counting one ill-fated pass attempt, the All-American wideout touched the ball 19 times, accounting for 249 yards, or 13.1 yards per tote.

They didn’t run out of juice. They just ran out of time.

Remember that. Remember the nutty, too, such as Matt McCrane’s rabona onside kick with 1:21 left in the party that went viral but couldn’t get past UCLA’s Paul Perkins. Or the Vine-worthy postgame exchange (actually, the curious lack thereof) between Bruins coach Jim Mora and counterpart Bill Snyder. When the dust finally settled at the Alamodome, No. 11 K-State had racked up 26 first downs, 14th-ranked UCLA had piled up a whopping 128 penalty yards, and everything in between played out a bit like a film script.

Except, of course, for the happy ending.

UCLA-K-State wasn’t men versus boys. But it was men versus much, much, much faster men. Lightning Bruins tailback Perkins (20 carries, 194 rushing yards, two scores) found more daylight than a cat on a windowsill, and his 67-yard touchdown scamper with 2:20 left in the contest, one that pushed the margin to 40-28 UCLA, was probably one bridge too far. Brett Hundley (136 passing yards, 96 on the ground, two rushing scores) danced around like the second coming of Michael Bishop.

That side of the ball was probably always going to get its chunks. What was more vexing, in hindsight, was watching a defense that came into San Antonio ranked 78th nationally in points against and 65th in opponent scoring efficiency pile up four sacks in the first half, recording six tackles for loss, nab a pick and recover a Waters fumble.

Do-everything UCLA defender Myles Jack ran a Waters pick back 41 yards, or nearly three times K-State’s rushing total as a team in the first half (15). With 90 seconds left in the first quarter, the Bruins had 218 yards; the ‘Cats had four. After two quarters, UCLA had 312 yards; K-State had 104. The Wildcats’ 25-point deficit at the break was the largest ever by a Snyder-coached team in a postseason contest.

And yet back they came. Methodically, then quickly.

A 17-play, 75-yard scoring march opened the second half in typical Snyder fashion, but Mueller’s forced fumble and a short field (and a short march of 21 yards) yielded 15 K-State points in a span of about four minutes.

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And the Wildcats capped the fourth quarter pretty much as they’d opened the third, driving 91 yards in 15 plays to claw to within 34-27 on Waters’ 1-yard touchdown plunge, then picking themselves up off the turf after Perkins’ rocket run and an injury to junior Boston Stiverson to race 90 yards in four plays and 59 seconds. While the Bruins slept, the ‘Cats kept swinging, and Waters found Lockett wide open, one last time, up the left boundary for a perfect rainbow and a 29-yard score.

They didn’t run out of juice. They just ran out of time.

And that stings, too. Of the 66 Power Five college football programs, only 11 featured more senior starters than these Wildcats’ 10. Unlike last year’s bowl game, a junior-dominated rout of Michigan, this moment, this snapshot, is largely a launch point to the unknown. So in the meantime, cherish the moments, fleeting though they may be.

You’ll remember Mueller, Big Red, raising hell.

You’ll remember Jonathan Truman, hash to hash, holding down the beat.

You’ll remember Sexton, the engine that never quit.

You’ll remember Waters, bloodied but unbowed.

You’ll remember Finney, the glue, the heart.

You’ll remember Lockett, an endless fountain of magic, always open, always finding a way.

But ultimately, you’ll remember the margins.

So will they. Forever.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.