MANHATTAN — As quickly as the start of a football season brought excitement to Kansas State fans everywhere, a dreadful performance at Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday almost squashed it.
At the least, it delivered a great deal of stress.
Though K-State rallied late to defeat Eastern Kentucky 10-7 in front of a sellout crowd of 50,292, it's hard to imagine anyone having many positive thoughts about the Wildcats today.
Not only did news across the region Saturday create serious concerns about their future conference affiliation, they narrowly avoided one of their most embarrassing losses in recent memory.
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"I would have felt terrible losing to this team," junior wide receiver Chris Harper said. "It would have been like a tragedy. I don't want to use that word, but that's kind of what it would have been had we lost."
Indeed, Eastern Kentucky, of the Football Conference Subdivision, was not supposed to be able to compete with K-State. Instead, the Colonels put a real scare into the Wildcats for four full quarters. All while playing without their usual starting quarterback.
It wasn't until Collin Klein hit Harper in the back of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute, 39 seconds remaining that the Wildcats possessed a lead.
It was all they would need, but until that point it was difficult going for K-State, especially on offense. It turned the ball over five times, needed 77 plays to gain 303 yards and had to fight for position at the line of scrimmage at every turn.
"We did all the things you can't do if you're trying to win," Klein said. "Penalties, turnovers, I mean it was just across the board. Busted assignments, you can't have that if we're going to win, especially at the level we want."
Terrible play from K-State's offensive line led to most of the mistakes. Klein was sacked twice, and consistently had to improvise plays against pressure. He ended with a decent effort, completing 13 of 21 passes for 128 yards a touchdown and an interception while rushing for 78 yards on 25 carries. And he made the play of the game when the pressure was on.
But it will take more than one fantastic play to win games as the schedule gets tougher.
He will need help from the Wildcats' trio of running backs — Angelo Pease, John Hubert and Bryce Brown — who all failed to consistently gain yardage. Though Hubert reeled off a few nifty runs and finished with 91 yards, Brown had difficulties.
Playing in his first game since transferring from Tennessee, he managed 16 yards on three carries and set Eastern Kentucky up for its only score by fumbling in front of K-State's end zone.
But it's not like K-State had an offensive star on this night.
Snyder wasn't surprised. Coming into Saturday's game, he thought the general public thought K-State's offense was better than it is. His players now feel the same way.
"We just have to look at this as we're not where we thought we were," receiver Brodrick Smith said. "We have to go out there next week and start preparing better, start working harder and just take it to the next level."
What will that take? As Snyder likes to say, he will have to look at the film. When he does....
"I'll probably give you a list of 110 things," Snyder said.
The Wildcats' offensive struggles sent them into halftime tied 0-0, and put them behind 7-0 late in the third quarter when Jared McClain ran in a one-yard touchdown following Brown's fumble.
From there, the Wildcats did just enough to pull out the win. They drove into scoring position three times, with Anthony Cantele missing a 37-yard field goal attempt, then connecting on one from 36 yards out with 10:11 remaining to make the score 7-3.
K-State's defense, which played well and allowed 129 total yards, forced Eastern Kentucky to punt on its next possession and set Klein up for the game-winning score.
If there was a positive to take away from this game, it was that K-State's defense looked much improved from a year ago, when they were one of the worst statistical units in the country. Jordan Voelker, Meshak Williams, Arthur Brown and Ryan Mueller combined for four sacks, and Nigel Malone grabbed two interceptions. One came in the end zone, the other ended Eastern Kentucky's comeback hopes.
"As a defense, we flying around and playing with more passion out there," Voelker said. "That makes me really proud, putting the game on our shoulders. We never really came through like that last year."
Neither did Klein when he spent much of his time as a backup. Placed in the first make-or-break situation of his college career, he responded by leading the Wildcats 86 yards in 5:41 for the game winning touchdown.
When he hit Harper for K-State's first touchdown of the day, the crowd went wild. Fans cheered loudly again a few plays later when Malone, a cornerback, picked off a pass to clinch the game.
Though those reactions were mostly out of relief, and Snyder told his team in the postgame locker room they were "the most fortunate people in the state of Kansas," to escape with a win, K-State fans have to prefer it to the alternative.