Kansas State's football season will be most remembered for how it ended, with a controversial salute and a painful loss in the Pinstripe Bowl.
But the Wildcats' defining moment came on a warm Thursday evening in early October, when Nebraska spanked K-State 48-13 in front of a capacity crowd at Snyder Family Stadium.
They entered the game 4-0, sitting just outside the national polls, and senior running back Daniel Thomas — who finished the year with 1,585yards and 19 touchdowns — was considered a darkhorse Heisman contender.
Manhattan was buzzing about the most-anticipated game of the year, but K-State walked away from it demoralized.
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Thomas was held to 63 yards that night, and Taylor Martinez exposed K-State's defense. The Nebraska freshman quarterback effortlessly rushed for 241 yards. He immediately took Thomas' place in the Heisman conversation, and some claimed there was nothing any defense could have done to stop him.
In reality, there was plenty. That game was the high point of the season for Martinez. Nebraska benched him for poor play at times, and stronger opponents kept him in check.
K-State was simply too weak on the defensive line and too slow everywhere else to to stop him.
K-State was also incapable of running for big yardage against a good defense dead set on stopping Thomas.
As coordinators from across the Big 12 watched replays of that game, the blueprint for beating K-State became clear: Run the ball as much as possible and account for Thomas on every play.
K-State was able to become bowl eligible and get to seven wins — overcoming inconsistent quarterback play from senior Carson Coffman and sophomore Collin Klein, and getting a boost defensively from David Garrett, Ty Zimmerman and Tre Walker — with wins over Kansas, Texas and North Texas. But the Wildcats were unable to solve those two nagging problems.
Baylor's Jay Finley rushed for 250 yards against K-State, Colorado's Rodney Stewart enjoyed a 195-yard day, North Texas's Lance Dunbar erupted for 270 yards and Syracuse's Delone Carter went for 198. In all, K-State finished the year with the Big 12's worst run defense, allowing more than 231 yards per game.
On offense, Thomas continued to post solid numbers, but with opposing defenses throwing everything they had at him, coach Bill Snyder stopped relying on Thomas as a go-to option.
The Wildcats tried the more mobile Klein late in the season to add an extra running threat in the backfield, and that strategy helped them defeat Texas, but whenever K-State fell behind in games it called on Coffman to throw on almost every down.
Season-ending injuries to starting wide receivers Brodrick Smith and Tramaine Thompson further limited the passing game.
The Wildcats improved on their 6-6 record of 2009, which left them out of a bowl game. But often they simply weren't equipped to win games.
K-State entered this season hoping to control the clock with a power running attack. It ended up trying to win shootouts, and narrowly lost high-scoring games to Baylor, Missouri, Colorado and Syracuse.
Snyder grew tired of that style of play, and his comments with the media became unhappier as the season went along. Players committed the same mistakes week after week, and he blamed the coaching staff.
The Wildcats will certainly look different next year.
Several key pieces from this year's team, especially on offense, are graduating. Gone will be Coffman, Thomas, leading receiver Aubrey Quarles and linemen Zach Kendall, Wade Weibert and Kenneth Mayfield.
On defense, they will lose Prizell Brown and Antonio Felder up front, and search for new defensive backs with the departures of Stephen Harrison and Terrance Sweeney. Kicker Josh Cherry, dependable long snapper Corey Adams and explosive kick returner William Powell will also be missed on special teams.
The additions of linebacker Arthur Brown and running back Bryce Brown — the Wichita brothers who transferred to K-State after once being among the highest-rated recruits in their high school classes — along with junior college quarterback Justin Tuggle provide hope.
What K-State needs most next season is a balanced offense and the addition of defensive speed.
Nebraska may no longer be on the schedule, but an early-season game at Miami and the Big 12's new nine-game format mean the Wildcats will face a tougher road in 2011.