MANHATTAN — As the football was in flight, more than 50,000 Kansas State fans, amped up for a new season, had lots of time to think.
It had been a miserable Saturday night to that point. The Wildcats, late in the fourth quarter, trailed Eastern Kentucky 7-3. Trailing Eastern Kentucky is an unenviable thing given the Colonels are an Football Championship Subdivision team from the Ohio Valley Conference and were playing with a freshman quarterback, Jared McClain, pressed into duty before he was ready because of an injury to starter T.J. Pryor.
But the team without a chance to win was winning. It happens in sports sometimes. It's part of what keeps us coming back.
Now, though, was Kansas State's time. Backs against the wall, mouths dry, legs wobbly, time fleeting, the Wildcats had to deliver.
Quarterback Collin Klein, with forever to throw on a second-and-five play, spotted Chris Harper running free into the end zone. There was a nice window for Klein and he lofted the football perfectly. Harper, from Wichita Northwest, made the catch for a 33-yard go-ahead touchdown with only 1:39 remaining.
Instead of elation, the roar from the sellout crowd signaled relief and exhaustion. It had to be stressful to K-State's fans to watch the Wildcats flop around like a fish on dry land for most of the night.
It didn't take long for the high expectations of a new season to turn to bewilderment about how a team that was so dynamic offensively last season could be so inept.
For the longest time, there was an assumption that despite how mediocre the Wildcats were offensively, they would eventually get it going and zoom past the Colonels.
But K-State didn't have a point at halftime. And K-State didn't have a point after three quarters. And Eastern Kentucky, which did close to nothing on offense all night, managed to score the game's first touchdown after a Bryce Brown fumble was recovered by the Colonels and returned 18 yards to the K-State 1-yard line.
Because of the way the game was shaping up, those seven points felt like 27. Though the Wildcats were moving the football some, they weren't moving into places that made the scoreboard light up.
Anthony Cantele missed a field goal. The Wildcats' defense couldn't force any turnovers, so the offense never had good field position.
If 100 things had to go right for Eastern Kentucky to win, it seemed like 100 things were.
Ultimately, though, the Colonels folded under the weight of their offensive struggles. Unable to sustain drives — Eastern Kentucky had 129 yards of offense — K-State kept getting the ball back. The Wildcats had a huge advantage in time of possession and needed all 36 minutes, 43 seconds.
Eventually, Cantele did make a field goal, a 36-yarder to pull the Cats to within 7-3 with 10:11 left.
What was to be the game-winning drive started with 7:20 left at the K-State 14-yard line. And it was plodding, with highlights and a few lowlights.
Klein and Harper hooked up for two completions before the big one. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Klein put his head down and rushed for 36 yards.
It was apparent, though, that K-State would need that one big play through the air. And Klein had not looked deep very often. His arm strength was questionable, especially throwing to the sideline.
But on this one play, he was perfect. He lofted the ball and Harper made the easy catch.
Until that moment, the best thing to happen was the surprise marriage proposal made in the first quarter to K-State coach Bill Snyder's daughter, Whitney. For those keeping score at home, she accepted.
Snyder had reluctantly given permission for the proposal to his future son-in-law, Micah, though he said after the game "that's really not my kind of thing.''
But, Snyder said, "it was the highlight of the whole damn night.''
There were some things to like about K-State's defense, although Eastern Kentucky's offense wasn't capable of doing too much damage.
Snyder, though, was alarmed by his team's five fumbles, four of which were lost. Klein also threw an interception.
The offense never clicked until that final drive. Snyder used three tailbacks — Brown, starter John Hubert and Angelo Pease. Hubert, after a slow start, had the best night with 91 yards on 17 carries. Brown, a heralded transfer from Tennessee who played at Wichita East, had only three carries for 17 yards and didn't return after his fumble set up Eastern Kentucky's only touchdown.
He had to leave the game temporarily after two carries to nurse an undisclosed leg injury.
The best you can say about Kansas State is that the Wildcats had it when they absolutely had to have it. Klein drove his team 86 yards in 11 plays when it was starting to feel as if Kansas State could really lose the game.
The Wildcats have two weeks to prepare for Kent State, their next opponent. It looks like another game K-State should win.
But as was again demonstrated Saturday night, there are no givens.