MANHATTAN — Before Saturday, Jack Cantele had never attempted a game-winning kick.
He grew up playing golf, sinking pressure putts at high school tournaments and staying calm as the final hole approached. He even made some in team settings. But none of that compared to what he faced in the final moments of Kansas State’s 33-31 victory over TCU at Snyder Family Stadium.
With seconds remaining in a wild, back-and-forth game, a sellout crowd focused solely on him. If Cantele, a Kapaun Mount Carmel High graduate who switched to football midway through high school, connected on a 41-yard field goal the Wildcats would claim their fourth straight victory and become bowl eligible. If he missed, the game was over.
TCU led by one, thanks to a clutch 56-yard field goal of its own from Jaden Oberkrom with 2:13 to go. Now it was Cantele’s turn to answer with a memorable kick, or to fold.
There was no telling how he would respond to the big stage. But he showed no fear.
“It went right down the middle,” Cantele said. “That was probably the best kick of my life.”
Cantele said he knew the kick was good the moment the ball left his foot, and it only took the fans sitting in the south end zone a few seconds to realize the same. Everyone cheered, with the Wildcats getting so carried away they got penalized for unnecessary celebration.
“I didn’t realize I had four field goals in that game,” Cantele said. “All I can remember is that last one.”
Three seconds remained on the clock, and TCU still technically had a shot at a miracle finish, but no one seemed to care.
“I am proud of them,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said, “and the fact that they came back and won the back-and-forth ballgame. I certainly am awfully proud of Cantele. There was a great deal of pressure on a young guy like that and everyone else that was on the field-goal unit.”
This was a big moment for Cantele. But it was even bigger for K-State.
Before Saturday, the Wildcats (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) hadn’t won a close game. They let North Dakota State march the length of the field with the game on the line, they couldn’t get over the hump against Texas, they couldn’t avoid turnovers against Oklahoma State and they wilted against Baylor.
All four of those games could have been victories. They all ended as narrow losses. K-State’s previous five victories all came in blowout fashion.
That was a trend they were ready to extinguish.
“When they scored on the other end I just felt a certain sense of confidence that we didn’t have at the beginning part of the season,” junior quarterback Jake Waters said. “Everyone knew that we weren’t going to lose this game. I don’t know if that would have happened earlier in the year. But we have taken that next step as a team.”
The Wildcats took that step by driving to the TCU 24 in the final two minutes. They started the drive on their own 32, and Snyder turned to Waters, who threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns, to lead the offense. He looked shaky on his first play, but then hit Curry Sexton over the middle for a 28-yard gain.
Then he found Tyler Lockett for 12 yards and K-State was in field-goal range. The next few plays were intense, with a negative run from Waters and a false-start penalty dropping it to back to the edge of Cantele’s range. But Waters hit Lockett for eight yards on third down, and the stage was set for Cantele.
Lockett, Sexton and Tramaine Thompson were, perhaps, K-State’s biggest playmakers. Though Daniel Sams rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown, Lockett caught eight passes for 123 yards and a touchdowns while Thompson grabbed two balls for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Lockett’s effort was made more impressive by the fact that he caught a 74-yard touchdown pass while going against Jason Verrett, the Big 12’s top cornerback. On the play, Lockett beat Verrett with a stop-and-go route. Verrett jumped in front of him as he faked the stop, and Lockett ended up wide open downfield.
Amazingly, it wasn’t the most explosive play of the game. Thompson benefited from broken coverage and slipped past TCU defenders for a 79-yard touchdown grab.
“It was a good scheme we had,” Thompson said. “Our coaches came up with some good play calls. It was easy. We got open on some of those big plays and they just happened to be huge touchdowns. It was awesome.”
That part of the game was unexpected. TCU (4-7, 2-6) has the best defense in the Big 12 and K-State has been stingy lately, too. No one expected this to turn into a shootout, especially after the Wildcats jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
But an interception from Waters, his first since nonconference play, and a fumble from Sams gave the Horned Frogs enough momentum to get back into the game. They trailed 17-7 at halftime, but led 28-24 midway through the third quarter.
Part of that comeback can be explained by an injury to senior safety Ty Zimmerman. K-State’s top defensive player suffered an apparent injury to his right ankle in the first half, and the Wildcats struggled without him. Snyder said he didn’t know the extent of his injury following the game, but it is potentially season-ending.
Zimmerman needed to be carted off the field, and he spent the third quarter wearing a medical boot and walking with the help of crutches. He suffered a similar injury last year, coincidentally against TCU, and was out until the Fiesta Bowl.
“That hurts big time,” senior linebacker Blake Slaughter said. “My heart goes out to Ty. That’s a guy I go to war with. That’s my brother.”
If he is unable to return for K-State’s next game against Oklahoma, his absence will be noticeable. But the Wildcats did just enough to win without him on Saturday, holding TCU to 350 yards … and a field goal when it mattered most.
On its final drive, TCU took over at its own 23 trailing 30-28 with 5:59 to play and marched across midfield with ease. Then Alauna Finau knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage, stopping TCU at the 39. But TCU took a 31-30 lead when Oberkrom boomed a 56-yard kick through the uprights.
Snyder would later call it a 200-yarder. Cantele said it was the finest kick he had seen at any level.
But he was glad his kick came last. It turned out to be much more meaningful.
“I have got to imagine that is how Kobe and LeBron feel,” Cantele said, “when they are trading baskets and one of them hits one with 15 seconds left and the other has to go down and make one. It’s cool that the kickers finally got some of the glory. That rarely seems to happen.”