K-State players would be kicking themselves — but they might miss wide right in process

Thursday night's game was one of just-misses for Tyler Lockett and the rest of the Wildcats.

MANHATTAN, Kan. — The opening kickoff went out of bounds to start the game. We didn’t know it then, but it was a harbinger, the narrative of the next three hours and 20 minutes to follow.

Kansas State’s Wildcats didn’t run out of time Thursday night under the lights. They ran out of feet to shoot off.

"Is it frustrating? Yes," coach Bill Snyder said after his 20th-ranked squad dropped a 20-14 home heartbreaker to No. 5 Auburn. "We know it’s frustrating because we didn’t play well and we made mistakes that cost us the opportunity to win a ballgame."

So many chances. So many bleeping chances.

They scored 14. They left another 16 out on the field, for all the world to see, and another nine on kicking points. They lost the turnover margin by two. At least a pair of potential interceptions slipped through various fingers.

So many chances. So many bleeping chances.

"As far as missed opportunities, it was just a collective team loss," said senior defensive end Ryan Mueller, who finished with five tackles and one pass break-up. "For the defense, you could say we stepped up the whole night, or whatever, but (in the) fourth quarter, third downs, if we get that stop (at the end), it’s a different ballgame. It didn’t happen. So there was a missed opportunity there, and that’s all I can really speak for."

Mueller is a stand-up guy on a stand-up roster, spreading the pain around, just as they would the love if the outcome had flipped on its head. But on a night when the Wildcats held a team that came in rushing for 330 yards and scoring 52 points per game to 128 and 20, respectively, you can’t help but turn over a few million times in your sleep.

Kansas State’s players could kick themselves, if they weren’t worried about missing wide right in the process.

Team EMAW got bit in its bread-and-butter Thursday against the defending SEC champs, beat on the little things. A catch here. A block there. A tackle over there. A clean snap. A solid hold.

All the things you take for granted with K-State football sort of vanished, in little puffs of smoke, at all the most inopportune and random times. Junior Jack Cantele missed as many kicks Thursday (three) as he had over his previous 18 attempts (15 for 18) over the previous two seasons.

"When he gets good snaps and good holds," Snyder said of Cantele, who was replaced by freshman Matthew McCrane after a 22-yard attempt in the third quarter sailed wide right, "he looks fine."

Everything felt a little too fast, a little uptight, right from the outset. The Wildcats’ first drive ended with a fumble by quarterback Jake Waters on a zone-read exchange at his own 21. The hosts’ second drive, down 3-0, ended in the Auburn end zone on a line-drive pass misread and tipped into the heavens by All-American wideout Tyler Lockett, a wounded duck that was snatched in midair by Tigers cornerback Jonathan Jones with 5:21 left in the first quarter.

First three drives: a fumble, an interception and a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Cantele that danced wide left. And the Auburn lead stayed 3-0.

Cantele missed another kick to end the first half, a 42-yard try that died four-fifths of the way through before dipping wide right. In all, the Wildcats (2-1) left at least 13 points on the field in the first 30 minutes — the pick in the end zone, and two whiffs on field-goal tries.

What could have been a 20-10 Kansas State halftime lead in prime time, against a top-five opponent, was, instead, a 10-7 deficit — and a giant, steaming pile of what-ifs.

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"We just kept telling each other that we had to control what we (could) control," linebacker Jonathan Truman said. "I had a lot of confidence in our offense and I know that they’re going to get better and correct (their) mistakes, just like the defense as well."

The defense held. And held. And held. The Tigers didn’t convert a third-down opportunity until there were three minutes left in the first half. When the dust settled, the red zone count read: Five chances for the ‘Cats, two scores. Auburn: 3 for 3.

So many chances. So many bleeping chances.

"Fourteen points," Snyder said, ruefully. "That’s … what else can I say?"

Mercy. Try that. For starters.

Holding a Gus Malzahn team to 20 should have been enough. Defensively, the Wildcats were, for the first three quarters, the most physical, disciplined unit on the field, reading the ballcarriers, sticking to assignments, dancing the dance. Malzahn didn’t invent the zone-read, but the man has whittled it and sharpened it into a spear of some potency. It looks like the spread, but it doesn’t play like the spread. It’s a football shell game, played with some of the fastest, skilled hands imaginable.

Picture Navy or Air Force, only with Oklahoma or Alabama’s personnel, faking and deking and pitching you to death, down after down, and you sort of get the general idea. It’s hard to simulate, to practice against, in a month — let alone a week and a half.

And yet, there they were: With 6:28 left, the rush-happy Tigers (3-0) had managed just 121 yards on the ground on 38 carries, a clip of 3.2 per attempt. The D matched all that SEC power, all that SEC speed, for some 45-46 minutes before the gas started to run out.

"They were just the better team (tonight), with the better set of guys — it doesn’t matter what conference you come from," Mueller said.

"At the end of the (night), they had more points than we did. And it’s definitely not a feather in the cap. The only feathers I want to keep in my hat are from wins."

The Wildcats could’ve owned the narrative. The evening. The country. With trips to Oklahoma (Oct. 18) and Baylor (Dec. 6) still on the docket, they still can. There’s no shame in slipping against No. 5 at home, no shame in defeat.

The shame is the win that got away.

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