MANHATTAN — The most meaningful home game in recent memory ended in ecstasy for Kansas State.
With a 42-24 victory over No. 23 Texas, the No. 7 Wildcats found sweet redemption in front of a sellout crowd of 50,912 on Saturday night at Snyder Family Stadium. Not only did they bounce back from their only loss of the season, they won a share of their first Big 12 championship since 2003 and clinched a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
A year after falling a game short of a conference title and being passed over in the BCS selection process, both are major achievements for a team that was picked to finish sixth in its league — even though it was dreaming of bigger things two weeks ago before falling at Baylor.
“It means an awful lot to all of us,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “It means a great deal to the people in our program. They were excited about it. I speak for everybody in our football family. It is significant for each and every one of us.”
Fans stormed the field when it was over, and players partied in a wild environment as they accepted the Big 12 championship trophy and tried on their commemorative shirts and hats.
“The celebration was my favorite part of tonight,” senior fullback Braden Wilson said. “Going through the field with I don’t know how many fans, that was really cool and an experience I will never forget … Everyone is just enjoying this big win.”
Added safety Jarard Milo: “To be able to be named Big 12 champions is the best thing that could happen to us.”
The victory could also have a positive individual impact as well. Senior quarterback Collin Klein boosted his Heisman Trophy candidacy and may have locked up a trip to New York next week for the award’s presentation ceremony by guiding his team to a much-needed win in front of a national TV audience.
He threw for 184 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns. His final two scores, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett at the start of the fourth quarter, locked up the win. Those big plays could have swayed undecided voters.
Snyder knows who he would vote for.
“I don’t know about anybody that means more to a team than Collin Klein,” Snyder said. “… He deserves anything and everything and all the compliments he can have.”
Texas coach Mack Brown was impressed, too.
“Collin Klein is a great player, not a good player,” Brown said. “I have watched him for three or four years now and he is so big and unselfish. I think that is what makes him so special. He is also hard to tackle, is accurate with his passing game, and that is what makes him such a great player. I know he will be in New York.”
Still, he might not have done enough to catch Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who is considered the frontrunner and holds a large statistical advantage.
That will be decided in time.
One thing is for sure: On Saturday, K-State made sure it finished off its impressive regular season the right way – by beating Texas for the fifth straight time — with a strong second half.
But it wasn’t easy. It trailed 10-7 at the break, and had to play well under pressure late.
“I thought we played well and coaches did a nice job,” Snyder said. “We had some good things happen.”
A loss would have been costly. K-State had to win to join Oklahoma atop the Big 12 standings. And there is no telling where the Wildcats would have landed on a two-game losing streak. After starting the season with 10 straight wins, anything short of a BCS bowl would have felt like a letdown.
Instead, they got what the desired.
“They have gone through an awful lot,” Snyder said. “To come back from what happened down in Waco was quite formidable for them.”
K-State needed to fight back after a first half that began and ended in bizarre fashion.
The first score of the game came when Case McCoy floated a pass to the left sideline, and Nigel Malone intercepted it in stride on his way to what appeared to be a 30-yard touchdown return. But video replays confirmed he dropped the ball inches short of the goal line. After a lengthy deliberation, the officials ruled that K-State would retain the ball at the 1, and Klein punched in a touchdown run on the next play to put the Wildcats up 7-0 less than 4 minutes in.
But Texas owned the rest of the first half. The Longhorns stopped K-State’s only scoring chance when Adria Phillips intercepted a pass from Klein in the end zone that was intended for Tyler Lockett. It was the beginning of the second quarter, and the momentum was about to shift Texas’ way.
On the next play, McCoy hit Daje Johnson for a 70-yard gain on a swing pass. The play would have resulted in a touchdown, but Johnson stepped out of bounds before reaching the end zone. The big play led to a Texas field goal with 12 minutes remaining before halftime.
Texas then forced K-State into a three-and-out and took a 10-7 lead on the ensuing possession when McCoy hit Jaxon Shipley for a 14-yard score.
K-State did little on its next possession, and Texas came close to taking a two-score lead into halftime until McCoy was flagged for intentional grounding on third down. The loss forced Texas into a lengthy field goal attempt, and it turned the ball over on downs after missing badly on a fake pass.
But the Wildcats owned the second half. They started off the third quarter right with a 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with a two-yard run from John Hubert, who rushed for 66 yards and three touchdowns.
“That gave us momentum and gave us back our swag,” Hubert said. “We were running the ball. From there, we took the momentum and kept it and ran away with it.”
Texas answered back with a touchdown drive of its own that ended with a two-yard run from Malcolm Brown. But K-State scored the next four touchdowns to pull away.
Hubert scored two of them on short runs, Klein found the end zone on a nine-yard run and Lockett caught a 55-yard touchdown pass to start the separation.
“I was so proud of our guys for jumping back on the horse,” Klein said, “especially offensively, when we didn’t establish anything early and I turned the ball over, which still irritates me to no end. I’m just glad we were able to hang together and fight through it and finally gain that push to get us over the hump.”
By the end, it felt like a blowout with a rowdy crowd celebrating two lofty achievements.