MANHATTAN — Jarard Milo could already feel the pressure.
Even though Kansas State didn’t officially climb to the top of the BCS standings until Sunday evening, the junior safety sensed the weight of playing for a No. 1 team the moment he stepped on the field at TCU.
The sellout crowd was intense, the Horned Frogs’ defense held the Wildcats to a season-low 23 points and both teams fought injuries. Nothing came easy.
When K-State emerged victorious and in control of its path to the BCS championship game, there was reason to celebrate. But Milo didn’t feel like it. He was worn out.
“We came away with the win, but we still aren’t happy. We have a lot of work to do,” Milo said. “These games are getting harder and harder and harder.”
That might not change with a primetime road trip to Baylor up next. While the Bears don’t have the look of a team capable of putting a scare into the Wildcats — their only Big 12 victory came against Kansas, and their defense is allowing nearly 520 yards per game — weird things tend to happen this time of year.
Few expected previously top-ranked Alabama to lose at home last weekend, but Texas A&M delivered an upset. Notre Dame was a heavy favorite at home against struggling Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but needed triple overtime to beat the Panthers.
The mixture of one team playing for a potential spot in the national title game and the other fighting for a memorable victory can make any game closer than it supposed to be. It’s something the last undefeated teams in college football have to deal with every year.
“It’s just inevitable,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “It’s not that you’re listening to anything, but players and everybody realizes the situation, even the teams you’re playing are pointing at you. You get everybody’s best shot. All those things add up.”
The Sooners have both persevered and crumbled in the face of that adversity.
Oklahoma State dealt with it last year, too, and missed out on a trip to the BCS championship game when it lost late at Iowa State.
In 2005, when Texas was in the national championship mix, coach Mack Brown came up with a metaphor to explain the added pressure. Before a late-season game against Texas A&M he placed small pieces of cheese at each of his players’ lockers, and warned them not to eat it.
The cheese represented all the talk around the Longhorns’ program. It was all positive, of course, with Texas undefeated. But if players started focusing on that talk instead of the next game, bad things would happen.
He told them not to eat the “poisoned cheese.”
“It’s very difficult thing to win all your games and keep everyone on track,” Brown said.
Texas went on to beat Texas A&M and won the national championship, but he doesn’t recall Texas playing well against the Aggies.
The Wildcats face a similar challenge against Baylor, which sports one of the nation’s top offenses behind quarterback Nick Florence.
“We have a lot of people watching us now and a lot of people want to knock us off,” K-State fullback Braden Wilson said. “We just have to prepare that much more. Not that we weren’t preparing before, but we have to be aware of that fact. The pressure is on.”
Though K-State has more to play for than Baylor, the Bears will be motivated. They are trying to become bowl eligible a year after losing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III to the NFL. A win over the nation’s top team would certainly impress bowl representatives.
K-State is preparing for Baylor’s best shot.
“You have to understand that is going to happen with our position,” receiver Chris Harper said. “But I thought that was going to happen at the beginning of the season with us having the season we did last year. I thought teams were going to come out and want to hit us in the mouth. We’ve been able to handle it and respond to it very well.”
Early in the season, the Wildcats could surprise opponents with plays they hadn’t used. But that is hard to continue doing in November.
“As you progress during the season you have more and more exposure to what you do,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “Opponents have more to study and more to define who we are.”
That, along with K-State quarterback Collin Klein coming back from injury, made it hard for the Wildcats to move the ball against the Horned Frogs. Their defense deserved most of the credit for winning.
The offense doesn’t want to lag behind this week. Harper said his teammates took the TCU game personally, and were mad when they took the practice field this week. He thought the offensive line, in particular, was practicing like it had something to prove.
“Everyone was upset about how we played,” Harper said.
That attitude should help K-State players shield themselves from outside talk. While everyone else is speculating about the national championship and what it will take for the Wildcats to get there, they are focusing on improving.
They feel like they have to. Their games are getting harder.
“We all believe we haven’t played our best game yet,” Klein said. “That is what we are striving for and probably what we will strive for forever.”