MANHATTAN — The day began in celebration, with hundreds of Kansas State fans cheering the unveiling of a Bill Snyder statue and a renovated stadium.
It ended in disbelief, with the second-largest crowd in Snyder Family Stadium history watching the Wildcats give up an 80-yard, 18-play drive in the final minutes of a 24-21 loss to North Dakota State.
“Guys were stunned,” junior center B.J. Finney said of the locker room afterward. “We couldn’t believe it had happened.”
The result was shocking considering K-State is coming off a Big 12 championship and North Dakota State, though top-ranked, is a member of the Championship Subdivision.
But the teams were evenly matched. Even if K-State would have escaped with victory, it would have had to fight, scratch and claw to do it against the stubborn Bison on Friday.
North Dakota State scored first, played K-State to a 7-7 tie at halftime despite a missed field goal and a dropped touchdown pass and kept things interesting after falling behind 21-7 early in the third quarter by mounting the game-winning drive that lasted 8 minutes, 30 seconds.
The Bison converted four third downs along the way, and finally pulled ahead when quarterback Brock Jensen ran in a touchdown from one yard.
On the play, he stepped back and hesitated, spun and plowed into the end zone with 28 seconds remaining in front of 53,351 fans.
Jake Waters, making his first start in a K-State uniform, threw an interception on K-State’s next play from scrimmage and North Dakota State was free to celebrate the upset in front of its large contingent of fans in the south end zone.
It was Snyder’s first loss to an FCS opponent since Northern Iowa in 1989 and his first opening loss since that same year, his rookie season as a head coach. He had won 20 straight.
“It’s very tough, you never want to make history on the negative side,” senior safety Ty Zimmerman said. “But for us it is going to be a test of our character and a test of our team to see if we are going to shut down or come together.”
Still, it looked like he was going to win one more the way K-State opened the third quarter.
That’s when Waters got the offense going. The junior-college transfer shook off an up-and-down first half, in which he threw a 45-yard touchdown to Tramaine Thompson and tossed an ill-advised interception, to lead the Wildcats up and down the field in the second.
He completed his first seven passes of the third quarter, and quickly hit Tyler Lockett in stride deep down the left side of the field for a 56-yard score. Waters looks like K-State’s best pure thrower since Josh Freeman. He finished with 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
He also moved K-State into scoring range on his next drive, but backup quarterback Daniel Sams came into the game and zoomed past defenders for a 17-yard touchdown run on his first play from scrimmage. Sams stayed on the bench for the majority of the second half. Snyder said he wished he had played him more.
The Wildcats needed the improvements, because they were obviously dealing with jitters early. Waters started his K-State career in an innocuous way by calling a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. Then veteran left tackle Cornelius Lucas committed a false start, something that rarely occurred last season, on the opening drive. K-State’s offensive line and senior running back John Hubert were also largely ineffective. The Wildcats rushed for 19 yards in the first half.
“We laid an egg out there,” Finney said. “A big one. A huge one.”
The slow start opened the door for North Dakota State to score the first points of the night on a five-yard pass from Jensen to Ryan Smith with 56 seconds remaining in the first quarter. With that, the Bison did exactly what they wanted to do on the road: Make things interesting after the first few minutes.
The longer North Dakota State hung around, the more it was able to call on its past successes – back-to-back Championship Subdivision championships and three straight wins over Bowl Subdivision teams — and stay in position to pull an upset.
The Bison entered the season ranked No. 1. K-State possessed a clear talent and depth advantage, but the Bison know how to win in all environments.
Ideally, K-State had hoped to take an early lead and cruise. That touchdown meant it wouldn’t happen.
But the Wildcats responded to the deficit as if it was a wakeup call.
Early in the third quarter, the Wildcats were in control. It appeared that way, at least.
The offense was starting to click and the defense was coming up with big plays, including an interception by Dante Barnett. The crowd began to look forward to a drama-free ending. After all, K-State struggled against Missouri State in last year’s opener, leading 9-6 at half, but ended up winning easy.
North Dakota State wouldn’t allow the past to repeat itself, though.
Jensen hit Kevin Vaadeland for a nine-yard touchdown with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter to pull within 21-14. Then, Adam Keller made a 41-yard field goal to make the score 21-17 seconds before the fourth quarter began.
“I believe we prepared reasonably well,” Snyder said. “But I don’t think our effort was what I would have liked for it to be.”
It was anyone’s game.
K-State marched downfield twice, threatening to score. But it was unable to punch the ball in the end zone the way it did in the third quarter.
“We left countless points out there,” Thompson said. “We got ourselves into their territory and didn’t put any points on the board. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We would get a drive going with a big run, then do something and have a miscommunication or lose a snap. Those were momentum killers, and we had a lot of them.”
North Dakota State took advantage.
Watching from the sidelines and trying to stop the Bison on defense was equally difficult.
“That was very upsetting, to mandate on first and second down and come back on third down and continually let it slip,” said linebacker Tre Walker. “That was very frustrating”
“They played harder than we did,” added Snyder. “They were tougher than we were. They were better coached than we were.”
K-State must now try to improve against a difficult schedule. It won’t be easy, but at this point it has no other choice.
“We made a lot of mistakes out there,” Waters said. “We just have to come break from it, keep fighting and play better.”