DENTON, Texas — At the age of 71, Bill Snyder has trained himself to constantly examine the big picture.
So after watching his team survive a 49-41 shootout against North Texas on Saturday at Fouts Field, the long-time Kansas State football coach didn't allow himself to celebrate a victory that gave the Wildcats their seventh win of the season and assured them a spot in their first bowl game since 2006.
Those were positives to take away from the season finale, sure, and he was happy for his players, but he refused to get caught up in the here-and-now. He saw too many mistakes against the Mean Green — specifically the same defensive gaffes that have troubled K-State all year — to head home with a smile on his face. Bottom line, he deems that unacceptable.
That much was apparent by his demeanor outside the locker room following the game. Looking more displeased than he has all season, Snyder spoke in harsh tones and said it felt as if K-State had lost. When asked for his thoughts on another poor defensive effort that yielded 459 yards, he simply shook his head.
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“Tremendously disappointing,” Snyder said. “That's why I'm angry.”
The Wildcats’ inability to slow Mean Green running back Lance Dunbar certainly made the final score closer than it needed to be. The junior, who rushed for 270 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, sprinted through huge holes throughout the game and found the end zone on runs of 36, 52, and 63 yards.
By the end of the first quarter, he had already scored twice and amassed 161 yards on five carries.
"What did he have, 500, 600 yards, somewhere in that vicinity?" Snyder asked, after calling Dunbar a tremendous talent. "We probably made him a little bit better than he is."
Dunbar's numbers were big enough to overshadow a breakthrough game for K-State running back Daniel Thomas. Playing in his final regular-season game, the senior rushed for a career-high 269 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries.
It was his finest effort since opening the year with 234 yards in a win against UCLA. Lately, Thomas has seen a lesser role in the Wildcats' offense and touched the ball a combined 26 times in the past two games. But he was back to his old form Saturday.
"I'm very happy," Thomas said. "I felt a little frustrated coming off back-to-back games when I had like 12 carries. It was good to be back getting the ball like that."
K-State (7-5 overall, 3-5 Big 12) needed everything he could give it. With Dunbar gashing the Wildcats' defense, he had to do the same to keep up.
The two running backs were so explosive that at times it seemed they were the only players on the field. They certainly motivated each other.
"I saw him go out and make a few plays," Thomas said. "I wanted to go out and do the same thing."
Both performances were impressive, but Thomas ran for his yards under more pressure. Behind Dunbar, North Texas (3-9, 3-5 Sun Belt) jumped out to a 20-7 lead.
If the Wildcats wanted to head back to Manhattan with a winning record, they had to respond with some scoring drives of their own. After a quick meeting on the sideline, they got to work.
"We played them a little closer than we should have," K-State wide receiver Chris Harper said. "Everybody knows that we should have put it on them a little more than we did. We took them lightly and
they came out and played really good."
K-State took control in the second and third quarters. Carson Coffman, who threw for 77 yards and scored two touchdowns, hit Harper for a seven-yard score with five seconds remaining in the first half to give the Wildcats their first lead.
Then, K-State used Thomas out of the wildcat formation to start the third quarter, and that led to easy touchdown runs by Collin Klein and Braden Wilson. A number of defensive adjustments also began to work, and with 7 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter K-State held a 35-20 lead.
But, as Snyder later put it: "We opened the floodgates again."
Indeed, things got crazy the rest of the way. The teams exchanged touchdowns to make the score 42-27, and then both squads returned kickoffs for touchdowns on back-to-back plays.
North Texas ended the third quarter with a 93-yard return by Brelan Chancellor. K-State opened the fourth quarter with a 92-yard return from Aubrey Quarles.
"You're going out there scoring all those points and you sit down and they run the kickoff back or they break a long run," Thomas said. "But you've just got to keep playing."
Both teams did, and after a 17-yard shovel pass from Chase Baine to Dunbar pulled North Texas to within 49-41 with 10 minutes to go, the Mean Green were back to within one score.
K-State was unable to score again or run out the clock in its final possessions, and it took Ty Zimmerman intercepting a Hail Mary pass on the game's last play to secure the victory.
"We're an immature football team," Snyder said.
The Wildcats will now wait to learn their postseason destination, and begin practicing for their bowl game. At the least, rewatching this game should leave them motivated.
"We're happy with the win and everything," Quarles said, "but we're not too happy about the way we did it."