Andre McDonald felt the football in his hands twice during Kansas State's blowout win over Missouri State three weeks ago. But just as quickly as the ball arrived, it departed.
To a receiver — McDonald is a massive tight end from Choctaw, Okla. —a dropped pass is worse than a dropped tray in the cafeteria. McDonald, a redshirt whose chief assignment last year was to eat as much as he could, never dropped his tray. And he had been eagerly awaiting his chance to get those big hands on the football.
And when it happens, he develops butterfingers.
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But instead of sending McDonald to the back of the line, K-State coach Bill Snyder stuck with the big kid, understanding that he's learning on the job and far from a finished product.
Just two weeks later, in a harrowing win over Central Florida, McDonald was a hero. His third-down catch on a misdirection pass play helped K-State convert a third-and-10 on the Wildcats' game-winning drive; without that completion it's probably a K-State loss.
He caught another five-yarder during the drive and after quarterback Carson Coffman fell into the end zone with the go-ahead touchdown, it was McDonald who got most of the helmet and shoulder-pad slaps from ecstatic teammates.
"We're just a big band of brothers,'' McDonald explained. "I'm somewhat of a little brother on this football team, just a younger guy playing with a bunch of juniors and seniors. It's my first time to make a big play, to have a big reception. I was surprised they called that play to me, but Carson threw a great ball.''
The pass was a floater, intentionally. Every K-State offensive player broke to the right, except McDonald. He found open space to the left and Coffman turned and lobbed him the ball.
It must have seemed as if it was in the air for a couple of minutes. Finally, it arrived. And McDonald, making sure not to look upfield too soon as he had in one of the drops against Missouri State, wasn't going to let this one slip through his hands.
"I didn't have any jitters,'' he said. "That first time, I think all the jitters I felt made me drop the ball. This time, though, I had the mentality to get it done.''
His drops in the Missouri State game happened on back-to-back plays. After the second one, he was probably looking for a doghouse to crawl into.
"It definitely wasn't good for my confidence level,'' said the 6-foot-8, 280-pound McDonald, who credits an offseason weight program and a new devotion to eating for helping him put on 30 to 35 pounds since last season.
K-State assistant coach Ricky Rahne strongly encouraged McDonald to use his mouth for something other than talking. Strength coach Chris Dawson put the big tight end through the ropes.
Finally, meat started sticking to McDonald's bones and his bulk started to expand. McDonald's role on the Wildcats is expanding, too. He's still behind sophomore Travis Tannahill on the depth chart, but McDonald is on the field more and more.
"I was happy we got the win against Missouri State, but pretty upset with myself,'' McDonald said. "I had to come back the next week (against Iowa State) and really stay focused.''
McDonald wasn't thrown to in the Iowa State game, and he was relied on only for blocking for the first 48 minutes or so against Central Florida.
But on the biggest play so far in K-State's season, his number was called. And he came through with a 13-yard gain to help the Wildcats win a game they seemed destined to lose.
It's amazing what one catch can do, especially one as important as that.
"I can't speak to what we would have done if we don't get the first down there, but we probably would have punted,'' McDonald said. "Then there would have been a possibility we wouldn't have gotten the ball back.''
That would have meant a K-State loss, which would have meant the Cats would be 3-1 going into Thursday night's Nebraska game, not 4-0. The difference is huge; this sets up as a legitimate Big 12 North showdown now.
K-State found a way to win, just as it did the week before against Iowa State. It's difficult to tell yet just where the Wildcats are as a team. Certainly, the fourth-quarter rally wasn't just a boost to McDonald's confidence, but also to Coffman, the much-maligned quarterback who made several key plays in the second half and especially in the fourth quarter.
Coffman hasn't used his tight ends much; he's had trouble getting the football to receivers all season.
In four games, no Kansas State player has caught more than 14 passes. McDonald and Tannahill, relied upon for blocking mostly, have just four receptions between then.
But with 11 days to prepare, it's likely the Wildcats will have many new wrinkles against Nebraska.
"I would love to be a bigger part of the offense,'' McDonald said. "You always love to catch passes and I know we have a lot of great receivers here who can do that.
"Maybe that one catch of mine will open some doors for me. I would certainly hope so, although I would never speak out and say that it should or it would.''
Too late, Andre. You go right ahead. You're feeling it.