MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) Kansas State needs not look far for a cautionary tale about overlooking an opponent.
Last season’s opener would do just fine.
Eastern Kentucky sauntered into town and felt right at home. Didn’t matter that the Colonels weren’t Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, or even Baylor. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, they were leading the big boys from the Big 12 on their own turf.
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It wasn’t until Collin Klein heaved a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Harper with 1:39 left that a sellout crowd stopped chomping on fingernails and let slip a nervous smile.
The harrowing escape, a 10-7 victory, was the first of eight wins by seven points or fewer that propelled the Wildcats to a 10-win season. They lost to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, but who would have thought they’d end up there given the way things started?
“There’s been way too much dialogue provided by me for what occurred last year, and how it shouldn’t impact – or how we should not duplicate – what we did last year in the first ball game,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who is entering his 21st season on the sideline.
He’ll know whether the message got through in Saturday night’s opener against Missouri State.
The No. 22 Wildcats are expected to spend the night tuning up for a visit from the Hurricanes next weekend, but that doesn’t mean they’re overlooking another Football Championship Subdivision program, even one that won just two games a year ago.
“One of the things that we’ve been talking about this season is starting fast. We haven’t even really focused on Eastern Kentucky,” Harper said. “It’s not really our focus because Missouri State is a totally different team. That’s what we’ve been focusing on.”
The Wildcats have generally played well in openers, winning 19 straight under Snyder since a loss to Arizona State in 1989. They haven’t all been patsies, either: UCLA, California, Southern Cal and Iowa are among the teams Kansas State has sent to early defeats.
They haven’t lost a regular-season non-conference game the past two seasons, and are 62-7 since 1990 under Snyder, who is in his fourth year back from a brief retirement.
Those marks hardly stand out to Snyder, though, even though he’s a man of numbers.
He can rattle off the completion percentage of the opposing quarterback like he’s recalling his wife’s birthday, and breaks down a team’s tendencies to such detail that he knows how likely an opponent is to pass or run given any down-and-distance situation.
No, the numbers that Snyder’s been harping to his team this week are 149-5 – the record of his teams when leading at halftime. It’s a fact that dovetails nicely with the Wildcats’ stated goal of starting fast, or at least, faster than they did against Eastern Kentucky.
“We’ve attempted to put some emphasis on what we do in practice, and how we address our players, and our interaction with players, about getting off to better starts,” Snyder said. “One of the things I brought to their attention is that over whatever period of time we’ve been here, a very commanding fact is that our record when ahead at halftime is 149-5.
“Now, I worry about the five,” he said, “but by the same token it does send a message.”
The biggest reason Snyder wants the Wildcats to put away Missouri State early is to get his backups experience. That chance was wasted against Eastern Kentucky, when the No. 2s spent the night next to Snyder on the sideline.
Snyder said the ramifications were felt all year, particularly when the usual bumps and bruises from a season in the Big 12 began to set in. There were fewer first-year players who had seen the field, and who could be called upon in an important late-season game.
The most important of those positions was undoubtedly at quarterback.
Klein returns from one of the best statistical seasons in school history – he ran for 27 TDs, passed for 13 more and had more than 3,000 yards of total offense. But he also had more than 300 carries in Kansas State’s option-oriented offense, and the toll eventually set in. Klein spent more time with the trainers than on the practice field late last season.
Daniel Sams, who redshirted last season, and Sam Johnson, a sophomore who was on the scout squad, will be first off the bench – assuming things go as planned. That didn’t happen a year ago, and Kansas State has every intention of putting Missouri State away early.