If there’s one thing you can count on from Kansas State’s football team – year in and year out – it’s improvement.
No matter how a season starts, the Wildcats always seem to get better every week until they reach a bowl game.
It’s what K-State coach Bill Snyder demands. His attention to detail and his pursuit of perfection leads to steady progress. It’s become a calling card for his teams.
A 49-26 victory over No. 25 Texas Tech on Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium was yet another example of that in-season development. The same team that shockingly lost its opener to North Dakota State pummeled a ranked opponent on the road and made a statement along the way.
“We are not a team that is going to get pushed over,” K-State senior receiver Tramaine Thompson said. “A lot of people turned their backs on us when we had a couple of tough losses at the beginning of the year. For us to go into another team’s house and to play solid and to come out with a win, is a big positive for us.”
Offensive lineman Cody Whitehair summed things up more simply: “We are rolling now.”
Indeed, the Wildcats (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) are still a team to be reckoned with. They have won three games in a row – all blowouts – and are within one victory of being eligible for a bowl game. At 2-4, a postseason berth seemed iffy. But a fourth-straight bowl trip now seems all but certain. K-State might be favored in its final three games.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday. It entered this game as a three-point underdog. Without a road win on its resume, some thought an opposing crowd of 54,609 and Texas Tech’s pass-happy offense might be too much for K-State to handle.
But K-State proved early it was ready for the challenge.
On its opening drive, John Hubert took a handoff and zoomed up the left side for a 63-yard touchdown that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. He gave K-State a 7-3 lead, and it would go on to lead 14-10 at the end of the first quarter without attempting a pass.
Hubert finished with 157 rushing yards in one of the finest games of his career. In many ways, his improvement mirrors that of K-State as a whole. He failed to rush for 60 yards in four of the first five games, but has rushed for at least 90 in every game since.
“I am running with the mentality of giving it all I’ve got,” Hubert said. “I’ve only got a few games left and I just want to make the best of them. When I look back, I want to know I gave my all.”
His offensive line also played at a high level, opening up huge holes from start to finish. For K-State, it was smash-mouth football at its finest.
“We knew what they were going to do and they came right at us and we couldn’t stop them,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We didn’t have answers.”
K-State finally threw the ball in the second quarter, and took Texas Tech (7-3, 4-3) by surprise each time it did. Combined with a stout defensive effort, the Wildcats went into halftime leading 35-10. It was the most points they had scored in a first half since 2009.
Jake Waters, Daniel Sams and Hubert all ran for touchdowns by that point, and Thompson caught a 20-yard pass from Waters for the final score of the half. The first half was a statistical masterpiece.
They ran for 218 yards, they completed all six of their passes, they converted all four of their third-down attempts, they scored touchdowns on all four of their trips to the red zone and they didn’t punt a single time.
“I think we have improved a good deal,” Snyder said. “Not as much as I would like, but we are getting better week in and week out … Collectively, I thought we probably played as well today as we have at any time.”
K-State played so well that the game was essentially over at halftime, but Texas Tech made things somewhat interesting by scoring the first nine points of the third quarter.
Then came a surprise onside kick that could have drastically swung momentum the Red Raiders’ way, but the Wildcats emerged from a scrum with the ball and went on to win handily.
The rout featured 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Sams. Waters had 65 passing yards, 38 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. And it included Texas Tech, the nation’s seventh-ranked offense, switching quarterbacks and struggling for points.
K-State senior safety Ty Zimmerman closed out the romp in style by returning an interception 43 yards for a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter that sent Tech fans scurrying for the exits.
The Wildcats kept fighting and eventually left the field in higher spirits than they have showed all year.
Even their celebrations have improved.
“We are excited. We are confident. We’ve gotten the ball rolling,” Waters said. “This is how we wish we could have started. You can’t do anything about that, but we could probably play a little bit better, too. To get things rolling like this is really exciting.”