A season ago, Ryan Mueller was a change-of-pace guy on Kansas State’s defensive line that was loaded with seniors, providing max effort in place of veteran starters who needed a breather.
Now a year later as a starter on the defensive front, Mueller is still going at 100 percent, at least according to head coach Bill Snyder and Mueller’s defensive teammates.
“I said this last week — nobody plays harder than Ryan Mueller,” Snyder said. “Nobody. And nobody practices harder than Ryan Mueller.”
Mueller’s abilities as a pass rusher and game-changer on defense were on full display in Saturday’s 35-25 loss to Baylor, with the junior logging a third-down sack of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and later stripping the ball from the Bears’ signal-caller.
Mueller’s strip and subsequent fumble recovery came at the perfect time for K-State, which had all the momentum despite trailing 21-19 in the third quarter after blocking a Baylor punt and getting an easy touchdown.
With Baylor on the move at midfield, Mueller chased Petty outside the pocket and not only caught him, but stripped the ball and recovered it all in the same motion. The turnover gave K-State the ball and set up a short field for what was at the time, the go-ahead touchdown drive.
“I just saw the ball, it was right in front of me,” Mueller said of the play. “I just had to take it.”
Mueller came into Saturday’s game with a team-leading 5.5 tackles for loss and added to it. He finished the day with seven tackles, and two sacks, though that statistics were of little consolation after losing to the Bears.
“The goal is to win,” Mueller said. “That didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if you have 100 tackles in a game, if you lose, you lose. Statistics have no impact on my feelings. You either win the game or lose the game. We lost and didn’t get the job done, and it’s extremely frustrating.”
On a day when the K-State defense needed to be special if the Wildcats were to have the chance to win, Mueller led the effort up front and proved to be a handful for a Baylor offensive line that had allowed just five sacks all season.
Senior linebacker Blake Slaughter said Mueller did everything he could to give K-State the chance to win.
“He had that big third-down sack and then he just straight took the ball from a guy,” Slaughter said. “He’s just the kind of guy that’s going to give you maximum effort all of the time and he’s just a special kid. He cares so much and he’s all about winning games.”
Slaughter, himself a team captain, said Mueller’s leadership on an inexperienced defensive line has been pivotal.
“It’s huge,” Slaughter said. “He sets the tempo as far as effort is concerned and just that toughness and attitude. And he’s a vocal guy — he’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s going to say what’s on his heart and what’s on his mind. I appreciate it.”
Mueller said part of his motivation on Saturday stemmed from the devastated feeling he had in the locker room after losing to Baylor a season ago.
“I tried to play for all the seniors last year,” he said. “I wanted to dedicate the game and the performance to them. I’m sorry we couldn’t get it done, because I know each and every one of them was watching the game.
“That was my only motivation, which was that feeling I had last year in the locker room — it was devastating. I tried to carry that with me in this game and remember that feeling.”
Going 100 percent all the time can have its repercussions. Mueller joked that he led the team last year in personal foul penalties. Even last week against Oklahoma State, Mueller ran into the punter on fourth-and-1 and extended a Cowboy drive. Snyder said Mueller’s discipline was much better this week.
“Last week he made a gargantuan mental error,” Snyder said. “You can play hard but you have to have the discipline to make the right decisions and do the right things, and I think he did that today. I thought he played very, very well in all aspects.”
Despite a good day statistically, Mueller knows he can still find ways to improve.
“You guys saw all the good plays I made,” he said. “But I know all the mistakes out on the field that could have been more plays for the defense.”