Baylor has won 13 straight games going back to last season. Oklahoma State has won six in a row. And though both teams are clearly playing well right now, Kansas State’s surge back into relevance in the second half of the season might be equally as impressive, given where the Wildcats started the year.
Picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 this season, there was a time when it seemed the Wildcats would struggle to not finish last. Losing at home to North Dakota State to open the season, coupled with three straight losses to open Big 12 play, the Wildcats looked like a team more destined to watch a bowl game from the comfort of their living room than to actually play in one this season.
But the tide has turned for the Wildcats in the past month, as K-State went from dead man walking to bowl eligible with four straight victories in the second half of the season — including wins over Iowa State, West Virginia, TCU and then-No. 25 Texas Tech.
K-State (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) will look to make it five straight wins on Saturday when it hosts No. 22 Oklahoma (8-2, 5-2) at 11 a.m. in a game televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.
The Wildcats earned their bowl eligibility with a 33-31 win over TCU behind a 41-yard field goal from Jack Cantele with 3 seconds remaining. Though getting that coveted sixth win was a goal for the Wildcats, they don’t intend to stop there, even if K-State hasn’t defeated the Sooners in Manhattan since 1996.
“That’s big and to do it the way we did is pretty special,” Waters said Saturday night. “We wanted to get that sixth win to get bowl eligibility, and right now we have great momentum. We just want to keep it going — no steps back.”
Keeping that momentum going Saturday against the Sooners won’t be easy. While OU has struggled some this season, it’s still the Sooners, a team that’s owned the Wildcats under coach Bob Stoops with an 8-2 record since 2000. The Wildcats are, however, coming off a 24-19 victory in Norman, Okla., last season — their first win against the Sooners since the 2003 Big 12 Championship game in Kansas City, Mo.
K-State coach Bill Snyder is proud of what his team has accomplished in the second half this season, but said now is not time the for his Wildcats to begin patting themselves on the back just yet.
“It can all come to an abrupt halt,” he said this week. “We can’t reflect back and say we’ve arrived, because we haven’t. You win four games in a row, I don’t know how big a deal that is. But for this group, coming from where they were, they’ve made that improvement and accomplished something to this point in time. That can go by the wayside in a heartbeat.”
K-State junior linebacker Jonathan Truman has received the message.
“Right now our focus is on Oklahoma,” he said. “Even last week when people asked about the sixth win and bowl eligibility, I wasn’t focused on what was coming from the sixth win, I just wanted to get that sixth win. Now that we have that — I don’t know what’s going to come from that. I just know we’re focused on getting the seventh win.
“It was important to have bowl eligibility, but we’re not done. We still have a lot to accomplish. I know my teammates are still hungry for the rest of the season.”
There can’t be any hungrier Wildcats than the 25 seniors who will be playing in their final home game on Saturday. Last season’s senior class won 34 games at K-State. This year’s class has a chance to surpass that mark with a win Saturday — perhaps making it even sweeter because it would be against the Sooners.
Snyder said every graduating class is different and what will separate this year’s group over time is the resolve it showed in overcoming a 2-4 start to the season to now sitting fourth in the Big 12, behind only Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas — the three teams K-State lost to opening league play.
“I think the obvious thing is the fact that they didn’t give in when the opportunity presented itself, right after the first game, in fact,” Snyder said “They’re a team that decided, going into conference play, that there’s a better way to do this…
“That period of time when you go through those three conference games that you lose… we had opportunities to win those ballgames and didn’t. To me, being able to overcome that was really instrumental to whatever has taken place the rest of the season. It would have been so easy to say, ‘we can’t climb the hill.’”
Climbing the hill will lead to the fourth straight bowl for the Wildcats. The only question now is what game they’ll be going to next month. Multiple scenarios are on the table, but they depend on how K-State finishes in these final two games — Saturday against the Sooners and then next week in Lawrence against the rival Jayhawks. At season’s end, 8-4 sure looks a lot better than 7-5 or 6-6.
“I think a bowl game was significant to them, but I certainly think more of this football team to think they feel they’ve accomplished all that they want to accomplish,” Snyder said. “If that were the attitude and approach by our players, we’d be serious trouble.”
Waters said a big part of the turnaround was a change in the Wildcats’ mindset, one that started to believe they were going to win, rather than just hoping to win.
“When they kicked the field goal (Saturday night), I felt we were still going to win the game. You could feel it on the sideline. That’s what changed from the beginning of the year to now. No matter what happens, any type of adversity, we still think we’re going to win the game. That’s what we didn’t have at the beginning of the season.”
For what its worth, others think K-State will win Saturday’s game too, as the Wildcats are currently a 4 1/2-point favorite over the Sooners.