SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bill Snyder had a special request for his Kansas State players at a team meeting earlier this week. He ordered everyone in the room who had won a bowl game to raise their hands.
Not a single one went up.
Snyder has used that motivational ploy before. This time it served as a reminder that the Wildcats are trying to accomplish something new when they take on Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
The tactic continues to hammer home a valuable point, but it is also growing depressing.
Snyder could consult busloads of former players before encountering one that has won a bowl game. It’s an accomplishment that hasn’t been done at K-State since 2002, when the Wildcats defeated Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Since then, they have lost five straight, sometimes failing to stay competitive.
It is an ugly streak that has spanned 11 years, two head coaches and countless players. It hangs over the program every postseason in an otherwise successful time, lingering with no easy explanation.
K-State has lost to teams from the Big Ten, Big East, ACC, SEC and Pac-12 in recent bowls. It has lost in warm weather, cold weather and inside domes. It has lost to top-five teams and unranked opponents.
The matchups keep changing, but the results don’t.
“One of my many failings is that I do not have the answer to that,” Snyder said. “It could be a multitude of things, and perhaps it is, or maybe it is something simple that I am overlooking. … The bottom line is I really do not know.”
Searching for answers
There is no main culprit in K-State’s losing streak. Blame can be assessed seemingly anywhere.
It began with pregame distractions swirling around quarterback Ell Roberson in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. The worst bowl loss in program history, a 34-10 pummeling at the hands of Rutgers in the 2006 Texas Bowl, came next. An icy field and a touchdown salute that led to a controversial penalty hurt the Wildcats in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl. Arkansas overpowered K-State in the 2012 Cotton Bowl. And Oregon led from start to finish in last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
Current players suggest poor starts have done them in. Those who played in the Pinstripe Bowl blamed the officials. Some think a month of preparation time negates the strategy advantage Snyder has over opposing coaches during normal game weeks. Others will say K-State is a classic overachiever that can’t win against top bowl competition.
We might as well start at the top.
Perhaps Snyder’s coaching style is better suited for the regular season than bowls. That’s certainly what the numbers suggest. Though he has won more than 67 percent of his games in the regular season, amassing an impressive 177-90-1 record, Snyder is 6-8 in bowls.
Snyder explains the sub-.500 record is a result of playing quality teams in bowls with extra depth, and in some cases, talent. Still, Snyder has guided the Wildcats to bowl victories over national powers. Just not lately. His teams have won back-to-back bowls once.
“It’s really weird,” K-State defensive end Ryan Mueller said. “Coach Snyder is a great coach who wins games and helps his players on and off the field, but that doesn’t show in his bowl record. He deserves better, and we want to give him a bowl win.”
Former K-State quarterback and current radio analyst Stan Weber understands that desire. He has been in attendance for all of Snyder’s bowl games and says “it’s time for that to end,” when you mention the Wildcats’ losing streak.
He can list several reasons why K-State hasn’t been successful. For starters, it has often played superior teams. Snyder’s team often struggle to pull upsets. Snyder is 25-42 against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25. But that won’t be a problem against Michigan. Both teams are 7-5, and the Wildcats are favored to win.
Weber thinks how they have prepared and adjusted to a long build up will decide the outcome.
In past bowls, opposing coaches saw trick plays coming. That can’t continue.
A shorter lead-in to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl could be beneficial. In past years, Snyder has had so much time to prepare for bowls that he spent portions of practice focusing on young, seldom-used players and installing offensive packages for his starters to use the following year in conference games.
This month, the focus has been on Michigan.
“Bill Snyder is a master at preparing for teams in a week,” Weber said. “He can probably do as much in a week as most coaches can do in a month. But when the other team has a month to get everything they need, that advantage fades away in a bowl game. That might not happen this time.”
Remembering bowl success
Shad Meier can hold his hand up high in front of Snyder.
The standout tight end that went on to play four years in the NFL and now lives in Nashville, Tenn. He won three bowl games with the Wildcats and was a member of the only teams in K-State history to win back-to-back bowl games, beating Washington in the 1999 Holiday Bowl and smashing Tennessee in the 2001 Cotton Bowl.
“Beating Tennessee that was a neat culmination to my Kansas State career,” Meier said. “The locker room was all hugs, dancing and tears. It was really cool. Fast forward to now and it gives me pure bragging rights living in Tennessee. You wouldn’t believe how often that game comes up. We won, so it’s my trump card.”
Meier hopes current K-State players can have a similar bowl experience.
He has some advice for them: Treat the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl like a new season. Ending the regular season in November, taking time off, practicing on campus and then flying to another state for a week is hard. It’s easier when you view it as a fresh start.
The only bowl game Meier lost was the 1998 Alamo Bowl, when K-State didn’t use that approach and lost to Purdue. He doesn’t remember anyone on that team putting the regular season behind them. K-State fell one victory short of playing for a national title, but ended up in a middle-tier bowl. Players were ambivalent during practices and that led to a locker-room fight at halftime.
“We were getting it handed to us and one of the coaches called out one of the players who didn’t want to hear it,” Meier recalled. “Next thing I know I’m breaking up a fight. By the time everyone got cooled off, we had no time to make adjustments. It was awful.”
The Wildcats learned from that experience, and Meier was able to win his final two bowl games.
He remembers his teammates carrying a much different motto into those games: dominate.
“If that’s not your mindset, you are doing yourself a disservice,” Meier said. “Bowl preparation is long and ridiculous and the schedule is full of distractions, but you have to push that aside and focus on the game. When you do that, that’s when you win.”
Starting fast, finishing strong
K-State players are fed up with the streak. That much is obvious.
The seniors are about to play in their fourth straight bowl game. Leaving without a bowl victory would be cruel.
“I have been here for five years and haven’t won a bowl game,” senior receiver Tramaine Thompson said. “That feeling of walking off the field and the other team is celebrating and getting on the stage and getting a trophy bothers me. It bothers me every season. I don’t want that feeling leaving here. We want to go out on top.”
The Wildcats are confident they can do exactly that. But they know it will take a fast start.
They fell behind 15-0 to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, giving up a 94-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff, and never threatened. They fell behind 19-0 to Arkansas and the Cotton Bowl and used all their energy getting back into the game.
K-State, a team that values running the ball and controlling the clock, has been forced to pass. It hasn’t produced a 100-yard rusher in its bowl losing streak.
This time, an early lead is a must.
“Going against an opponent you don’t normally play, a first-quarter lead has a bigger impact,” K-State linebacker Blake Slaughter said. “The way our team is built and how we try to execute, it’s hard for us when we get behind.”
With that in mind, K-State players have created their own motto for this game. No excuses.
Yes, Oregon and Arkansas were highly ranked. Yes, bad luck was involved against Syracuse. But none of that should prevent them from playing their best against Michigan.
Or raising their hands the next time Snyder asks who has won a bowl game.
“I don’t think there should be any excuse about being too amped or too nervous or not good enough to play in this game,” junior receiver Curry Sexton said. “We are all experienced in the situations. We have played in bigger bowl games and in front of bigger crowds. It’s time to go out and show we can win in an environment like this.”