ARLINGTON, Texas — With 1:39 remaining in the game, Chris Harper caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Collin Klein to give Kansas State a 10-7 victory over Eastern Kentucky.
The Wildcats trailed the Colonels almost the entire game before Harper and Klein hooked up for the go-ahead score in the season opener.
“It was a big wakeup call and maybe guys started to doubt how good we really were because Eastern Kentucky isn’t even a BCS school and they played with us,” Harper said Sunday during Cotton Bowl media day at Cowboys Stadium. “They were beating us the whole game.”
K-State looked like anything but a bowl team the first week of September. At first glimpse, the Big 12 preseason poll that had the Wildcats finishing eighth in the 10-team league seemed about right.
Against Eastern Kentucky, K-State totaled just 303 yards of offense and turned the ball over five times on four fumbles and an interception, while being flagged for seven penalties.
Then one touchdown pass from Klein to Harper jumpstarted an offense that would turn into one of the more dynamic units in the Big 12. The Wildcats’ offense showed both the ability to run and pass, as it developed into a reasonably balanced attack — averaging 193 rushing yards and 150 passing yards a game. K-State also showed that it could score points in bunches when it had to, and more often than not, when it needed to the most at the end of games.
A big part of the offense’s rise is because of Klein, who transformed from an inexperienced starting QB into an All-Big 12 performer. The junior has 2,844 yards of total offense with 38 touchdowns this season, including a school-record 26 rushing scores and 12 passing TDs.
In turn, the Wildcats went on to win nine more games this season — a feat that might have seemed impossible after K-State’s near fatal lapse back in Week 1.
“Being able to make that play for the touchdown, and looking back on it, it kind of changed the season,” said Harper, who has a team-best 39 receptions for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season.
It wasn’t the season-opener the Wildcats (10-2) expected. But Harper said overcoming the early dud was vital in laying the foundation for the success K-State would go on to have this season.
“It was a smack in the face because we thought we were going to be really good, especially offensively,” he said. “We thought we were going to be off the charts. And we went out there and they were on everything we did.”
The 11th-ranked Wildcats, who face No. 7 Arkansas on Friday night in the Cotton Bowl, had a bye in Week 2. And though K-State coach Bill Snyder normally prefers an off week a bit later in the season, the timing of this bye week perhaps came at exactly the right time.
“That game changed the season,” Harper said. “If we didn’t have that bye after that game, it might have been a totally different season.”
The bye week was enough time for the Wildcats to find their focus, or at least get it set in the right direction. Harper said the lessons learned in September are still carried by the Wildcats today, just four days out from one of the top bowl matchups in the country with the 10-2 Razorbacks.
“That game was a great lesson because we needed it,” he said. “We thought we could do whatever we wanted to and beat Eastern Kentucky. And we found out that wasn’t the case. You can’t do that in football with anybody.
“You have to put everything out there — every game — and you can’t hold anything back. We learned that you have to give it everything you got and that’s what we’ve been doing and the results have been great since then.”