ARLINGTON, Texas — With more than a month to prepare for the Cotton Bowl, Kansas State football coaches had more than enough time to devise an offensive strategy they were confident would work against No. 7 Arkansas.
After weeks of workouts and trial runs, players believed in the game plan. But, as the No. 11 Wildcats learned early in a 29-16 loss on Friday at Cowboys Stadium, live games are different from practices.
"We didn't execute when it was time to come and put it all together on the live stage," said receiver Tramaine Thompson, who caught three passes for 57 yards. "I don't think we were ready."
That was most evident in the passing game. Though coaches were justified in calling predominantly pass plays in the first half, K-State quarterback Collin Klein was rarely able to connect with open receivers.
"We had four dropped balls, we had two turnovers, we had four penalties, all in the first half," K-State coach Bill Snyder said. "That dramatically hurt us. We just weren't ready to play."
Whether they came from hurried throws, dropped passes, nervousness or the fact that they hadn't played since Dec. 3, incomplete passes piled up early.
When the game was over, several players grimaced while looking at their first-half statistics. K-State has been known for its mistake-free style all season. But it was sloppy against Arkansas.
The Cats picked up two first downs in the first quarter, fell behind 19-0 and didn't score their first touchdown until Klein found Andre McDonald in the end zone 26 seconds before halftime. They fought back to pull within 19-16 in the second half, but never got any closer.
"We turned the ball over early," Thompson said. "We dropped passes. I can't remember us dropping four passes all season. We dropped four in the first half. We didn't finish drives. It was just a lot of mental things that we didn't do that we normally take care of."
Had K-State cut down on those errors, and taken advantage of the way its defense played, the game could have been different.
So what caused the forgettable start?
Snyder blamed himself. He said he failed to get his players in the right mindset leading up to kickoff, and needed to do more in the weeks leading up to the game. Klein said the team would accept blame as a whole. He thought coaches put the Wildcats in position to succeed, they simply didn't execute.
Another theory: It took longer than expected to shake off the rust associated with a 34-day layoff.
"Everybody is anxious," Thompson said. "We've been sitting around for weeks now not playing the game."
Whatever the reason, K-State wishes it would have figured things out a little earlier.
"You can't get started slow in games," Thompson said. "We've done that a lot in games this year. Luckily we've been able to fight through that, down 14-0 a lot of times this year. We were down 19-0 and we decided to turn it on finally. But you can't start it that late."