BOULDER, Colo. Losing to Colorado 44-36 on Saturday at Folsom Field took Kansas State all the way back to where it started.
As players exited the locker room with blank looks on their faces and struggled to explain what went wrong in a setback that felt all too familiar, sophomore wide receiver Chris Harper best summed up his team's problems by uttering the same phrase that the Wildcats repeated over and over during summer practices.
"We've got to learn how to finish better," Harper said.
That has been K-State's bugaboo for awhile now. Dropping their final two games of the season last year prevented the Wildcats from playing in a bowl game. Failing to capitalize on a 14-3 lead over the Buffaloes gave them their second-straight defeat on Saturday.
If the Wildcats (6-5 overall, 3-5 Big 12) don't get things straightened out by the time they travel to North Texas in next week's season finale, there's no telling what their postseason fate will be.
"There ain't no guarantee six wins are going to get us anywhere, to any extra games or anything," said junior cornerback David Garrett, who led the team with 16 tackles. "We've got to finish strong."
Looking back at the tape of this game should offer K-State all the motivation it needs.
With 3 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the first quarter, sophomore quarterback Collin Klein dove into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day and the Wildcats were on top 14-3.
The game began with Colorado going three-and-out in front of its own goal line, and Ty Zimmerman leveling a CU defender on his way to a 41-yard punt return that left K-State one yard away from paydirt. The Wildcats scored on the next play and held the Buffs to a field goal on their next possession. K-State then drove 80 yards in nine plays for another touchdown. Everything was going perfectly.
But it didn't last.
"After we got up on them, I feel like we let up on the gas," Harper said. "We had them down on their heels, and we just let them back into it. They got a little bit of momentum and they responded well."
Colorado turned the game around by repeatedly handing the ball to Rodney Stewart and attacking K-State's struggling defensive line. The junior running back rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries, and also threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Toney Clemons on a trick play.
"We had difficulty stopping the run, which has been a nemesis for us," said K-State coach Bill Snyder.
Behind Stewart, the Buffs found a groove. Cody Hawkins completed 14 of 25 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns, and three different receivers caught touchdown passes. They scored 27 straight points to take a 30-14 lead midway through the third quarter and ended with 476 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats could do little to slow them. Though they were close to stopping them on several drives, they forced only four punts and no turnovers. The one time it looked like they had made a momentum- building play, early in the third quarter when Thomas Ferguson intercepted a tipped pass close to the red zone, it was wiped away by a roughing-the-passer penalty against Brandon Harold.
"It's very frustrating for any football player," said freshman linebacker Tre Walker. "When you have them stopped, you have them down, and you give them that breath of life and they keep on moving. That can be very frustrating."
It didn't help that K-State's offense went into a funk and came up empty on six straight drives after scoring touchdowns on its first two. A fumble at midfield by Daniel Thomas, who rushed for a season-low 58 yards on 14 carries, allowed Colorado to take its first lead at 16-14 with 10:27 remaining in the second quarter.
And a minor injury to Klein who completed one of three passes for 40 yards and ran for 58 yards near the end of the first half prevented senior Carson Coffman from finding his rhythm until the Wildcats trailed by two scores.
Once he did, Coffman completed 16 of 23 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns, giving K-State a real shot at forcing overtime in the final moments.
Three times, Coffman pulled the Wildcats to within eight points of the Buffs at 30-22, 37-29 and 44-36. He connected with Aubrey Quarles for 114 yards and a touchdown, and Harper for 74 yards.
The 80 points were the most ever scored in the series, but on each occasion Colorado responded with a score of its own or a defensive stop.
"We really thought we were going to win this one," Coffman said. "We got down in the second half and it was pretty hard to come back."
Still, he provided hope.
"You're on the sideline like man, 'We're almost there. We're almost there, Quarles said. "We just didn't get it done. It's real frustrating. You get real close and you think you're just going to break the mark and it didn't happen."
K-State had its best opportunity to win with 3:01 remaining. After forcing a Colorado punt, it took over at its own five-yard line. With a 95 yard scoring drive and a two-point conversion, the game would have gone to overtime.
The Wildcats made it as far as their own 38-yard line, but Coffman was sacked trying to convert a fourth-and-six with 1:01 to go.
Afterward, Snyder was asked how the reality of that moment affected his team.
"We're hanging on by the skin of our teeth, so to speak," he said. "It will be interesting to see how we respond."