For so long, Kansas State has won football games the Bill Snyder way.
The Wildcats usually avoid penalties. They rarely turn the ball over. They take what the defense gives them and they stay patient. To put it simply, they don’t beat themselves.
That system helped Snyder turn K-State into a winner, and the older players on its current roster have tasted its spoils in the form of major bowl games and a conference championship.
But the Wildcats have been straying from that system lately. An agonizing 33-29 loss to No. 21 Oklahoma State on Saturday at Pickens Stadium was another glaring reminder. They were penalized 12 times for 92 yards and lost five turnovers. That’s a formula for failure, not success.
“In our history, we have not been that kind of a football team,” Snyder said. “We haven’t always been extremely good, but we haven’t turned the ball over and we haven’t gotten penalized and it has always given us a chance to win. We still had a chance to win with it, but it sure makes it a heck of a lot harder.”
Things will continue to get harder for K-State (2-3, 0-2 Big 12) if it doesn’t get back to its old ways soon. Though losing close on the road to a ranked opponent isn’t normally cause for major concern, the Wildcats dug themselves a hole by losing to North Dakota State and Texas. With high-powered and undefeated Baylor up next, the challenges continue.
A confidence-boosting win would have meant a lot to K-State. Instead, it headed home with another loss.
“It’s tremendously hard, just the fact that the last couple years we have had so much success here,” senior safety Ty Zimmerman said. “We didn’t do the things we normally do. We made too many mistakes, too many penalties and took ourselves out of the ballgame.
“I feel like we could just as easily be 5-0 right now. We really could have won those three games that we lost. It comes down to us, fixing the mistakes we’ve made moving forward.”
On Saturday, the biggest mistakes were self-inflicted. A lack of discipline, toughness and mental strength stymied them all afternoon. The Wildcats weren’t just uncharacteristically mistake prone. They were off-the-charts undisciplined. No Snyder-coached team had lost that much penalty yardage since 2005. And at one point in the second half, they turned the ball over three times in five plays.
Those gaffes ruined a strong defensive effort that held Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1) to 330 yards – it was averaging 474. Despite its struggles, K-State led 29-23 with 6 minutes, 9 seconds remaining. It was in position to win.
“Any time you turn the ball over five times you aren’t going to win a football game,” receiver Curry Sexton said. “It stings because you realize we could have won, but we kept killing ourselves.”
The list of mistakes will keep Snyder agitated all weekend. It included three interceptions and a fumble from sophomore Daniel Sams, who came off the bench after one play to take over as primary quarterback, a fumble from Jake Waters, a running-into-kicker penalty, a slew of false starts and an illegal forward pass on a kickoff return.
A year ago, it seemed strange to see K-State commit three penalties and one turnover in a game. This year, mistakes are becoming the norm.
“If you look at the past we did those little things,” said Sexton, who caught six passes for 43 yards. “We were the least-penalized team in the Big 12. We turned the ball over less than any other team in the Big 12. We haven’t been able to do that this year. That’s what’s been hurting us.”
Something else that hurt K-State: The absence of its top two receivers. Players said Tramaine Thompson was scratched from the game plan earlier in the week, though no official reason was provided. He watched the game from the sidelines. Tyler Lockett started the game, but came up lame on a long pass route in the first half. He trudged off the field favoring his right hamstring and didn’t return.
Snyder said he was unaware how long they would remain sidelined. He seemed more concerned with how to create more out of the passing game without K-State’s top two deep threats. Their absence was definitely felt against Oklahoma State.
K-State receivers continually struggled to get open against the Cowboys’ secondary, and Sams seemed confused.
“At the end of the day, everything falls back on the quarterback,” Sams said. “I threw three interceptions. That’s something you can’t do.”
Sams showed signs of brilliance, as well. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns while running for 118 yards and a touchdown to keep K-State in the game. He also led a 57-yard touchdown drive to put his team ahead in the fourth quarter.
But then everything fell apart. K-State’s defense, which hadn’t allowed a first down in the second half surrendered a 57-yard touchdown drive less than 2 minutes later when J.W. Walsh hit Charlie Moore for a six-yard score that put Oklahoma State on top 30-29.
The Wildcats got the ball back with plenty of time to mount a game-winning drive, but Sams threw an interception on the first play while trying to hit a well-covered Kyle Klein up the left sideline and Oklahoma State converted the turnover into a field goal.
K-State once again controlled its destiny with 2:24 to go, but Sams threw another interception, this time into zone coverage around Sexton, and the game was over.
“I just made a bad decision,” Sams said. “That last interception I was trying to make something happen and threw a horrible ball, so it’s something I will learn from and try to come back from.”
Everyone involved in this loss walked away with something to improve on.
That might not change until the Wildcats get back to their roots.
“The thing that is so painful about it is we used to find a way to win,” senior linebacker Blake Slaughter said. “Last year we found a way to win. We weren’t that much better. We weren’t that much more talented. It wasn’t that we had five star recruits. We didn’t. We were similar guys. We found ways to win. We have to find a way to do that now.”