GLENDALE, Ariz. —It was the worst way to go out.
With two minutes to play, on Kansas State’s final drive in the Fiesta Bowl, quarterback Collin Klein threw an interception, which became his final play as a Wildcat.
The celebrated senior and Heisman Trophy finalist capped his career with a 35-17 loss to the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Twenty-six other seniors also played their last games as Wildcats, who began the season picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 and ended it as league champions.
“I’m just so proud to be a part of a team that did that and didn’t allow anyone to tell us how good or bad we were going to be — not to let ourselves tell ourselves how good or bad we could be,” Klein said. “It’s overshadowed right now, but that’s something to hang our hat on. I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
This senior class, while it didn’t win every game, might go down as one of the most special and unique classes K-State’s had. It was a senior class that improved its win total each year — winning just six games in 2009 and missing a bowl, to winning seven a year later and playing in the Pinstripe Bowl.
But its greatest success is what it’s done the past two seasons when the Wildcats finished 10-3 in 2011 and played in the Cotton Bowl. This year, after beginning the season unranked, the Wildcats (11-2) climbed to their first-ever No.1 position in the BCS.
“These young guys, who have given so much to Kansas State University the (K-State) family and to our football program, I appreciate all they’ve done,” K-State head coach Bill Snyder said.
Perhaps none have done more than Klein, who finishes his career with more than 7,200 yards of total offense and 86 total touchdowns, including 56 on the ground.
“He means everything,” K-State senior receiver Chris Harper said. “He sums up what we are about as a team. Everybody might not see us as the most talented team in America, but we hang our hat on toughness, giving the greatest effort we can, and this dude (Klein) sums it up to a T. One of the hardest workers and probably one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever met — he sums it up perfectly.”
While Klein has been a Wildcat since day one, guys like Harper and linebacker Arthur Brown transferred to K-State to be closer to their hometown of Wichita. Though the outcome wasn’t what they both wanted, obviously, they still managed to have banner nights individually.
Brown, who came to K-State from Miami, finished up with nine tackles on Thursday night, giving him 100 for the season.
“As seniors, we had the great opportunity to be a part of this team,” Brown said. “This is not the end, this is the beginning of a new season.”
Harper began his college football career playing at Oregon, and ironically, finished it playing against the Ducks (12-1). Perhaps the most complete receiver the Wildcats had this season, Harper finished with eight receptions for 71 yards against the Ducks.
“I think Chris played well, virtually has throughout the course of the season,” Snyder said. “I think he’s a very gifted young guy, has excellent hands. Obviously a very physical wide receiver who can advance the ball once he catches it. He did.”
But to Harper, the stats didn’t matter on this night.
“We took an L. That’s the only thing that matters,” said Harper, who finished with 58 catches for 857 receiving yards and three touchdowns this season. “I could care less if I had a catch or not. We took an L. It’s the last game of our careers at K-State, so I could care less what my numbers were.”
Though the result against Oregon didn’t show it, guys like kicker Anthony Cantele and defensive back Nigel Malone played important roles in their respected positions during their time at K-State. Cantele may have missed a 40-yard field goal attempt against the Ducks, but he was among the best in the country this season — making 19-of-23 kicks this season.
Tight end Travis Tannahill, who made a one-handed catch on a key third down Thursday night, was also an impact player — starting three seasons for the Wildcats and playing in three bowls.
Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett said these of seniors are a group of guys who he looks up to and who have helped him throughout his young career so far.
“It was an awesome experience playing with them,” he said. “I’m going to miss them. I am very glad that I was able to play with these seniors — they show leadership, they were family, they brought us in under their wings and they taught us a lot of things, not just about football but about life also. So I’m going to miss them.”
Of the 27 seniors, 17 have already graduated and the rest will this spring. Some will go on to the NFL and others have played their final football game ever. But one thing remains the same, even after loss to the end season is the unique bond and family the Wildcats had with this team.
“I mean — it’s hard… It’s not the way any of us wanted to go out,” said Klein, who accounted for two touchdowns in the loss. “I’m just so blessed that God’s given me the opportunity to be here at K State, be part of this family, play with all of our guys, play for Coach.”