Three games and three losses — nobody on the Kansas State football team had ever won a bowl game going into this past season.
All that changed a few weeks ago with the Wildcats’ 31-14 victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., capping a remarkable turnaround to end the season.
(Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters warms up for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan on Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz. Waters completed 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the 31-14 victory over the Wolverines).
“I think that’s the thing that drove everybody,” K-State receiver Tyler Lockett said. “That’s the main thing we wanted to do…”
After winning six of their last seven games to finish 8-5 overall, the Wildcats now don’t have to spend their offseason tending to an open wound left by another bowl game loss, providing a sense of relief no K-State team has experienced since 2002.
“The way this season started, it wasn’t the way we wanted,” K-State quarterback Jake Waters said. “But to finish the way we did, it gives us a lot of momentum and excitement about getting started again. We’re losing some great seniors, but with the work ethic that we have, the type of coaches that we have, we’re all excited about it.”
Lockett said it would have been easy for the team to give up on the season, but it didn’t.
“It’s easy to give up at 2-4,” he said. “Being able to keep fighting, fighting, ending the season 6-1, whatever it may be, it gives us a lot more to look forward to going into next year.”
It’s the kind of momentum into spring ball that the Wildcats perhaps haven’t felt since the 1998 season following the dismantling of Syracuse in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl.
“I hope it sets a foundation for the younger players in our program,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said following his team’s win over the Wolverines on Dec. 28. “It will be up to them. I would have liked to think that the 2012 season had laid the foundation for the 2013 season. We didn’t get off to a great start. We took some things for granted. I think some of our young people realized that and turned the whole thing around.
“That’s the biggest lesson probably for the young people that are in our program returning, you know, realizing how we started this season and why it took place. The ‘why’ is the most significant thing.”
But it’s how the Wildcats turned around a 2-4 start, to finish as one of the hottest teams in the country, that has people already excited about next season. Athlon Sports has already listed K-State as one of its five teams to watch for next season, saying the Wildcats could find themselves in the thick of another Big 12 title run.
If that’s truly the case, look for the Waters-to-Lockett tandem to be an even bigger part of the Wildcats’ attack in 2014. Waters emerged as a big-play threat this past season, teaming up with the junior receiver to become one of the most potent offensive combinations in the Big 12.
Lockett put together one of the best seasons by a receiver in K-State history with 81 catches for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 10 receptions for 116 yards and three scores in the bowl victory — earning the game’s offensive MVP award.
Waters’ breakout season did nothing to hurt his chances at becoming an every-down quarterback as a senior in 2014, perhaps forcing QB Daniel Sams to another position. The former junior college gunslinger completed 61 percent of his passes for nearly 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions in his first season at K-State.
“I think that once Jake finally committed here, we kind of got a relationship going — it started with staying after practice, running routes before practice,” Lockett said after the bowl game. “Even in the summer, we built that chemistry early, then we tried to keep it going through camp.”
There’s no reason to think the Waters-to-Lockett combination couldn’t be even better in 2014, especially with so many offensive pieces returning.
(Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett makes a touchdown catch in front of Michigan’s Raymon Taylor in the first half of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz. Lockett had 10 catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl victory).
“When you have a special player like Tyler, anytime you got a route, he’s one-on-one, I’m looking for him,” said Waters, who passed for 271 yards and found Lockett for three touchdowns in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. “I think he’s going to win it. He knows he’s going to win it.
“I just have that confidence in him. He’s such a special player. He can get open for any route because he works at it. He and I have a great connection. I’m just trying to get him the ball.”
It was a relationship that showed glimpses of greatness early on, when the Wildcats weren’t winning many games. K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said the Waters and Lockett connection really caught his eye during the game at Texas when Waters found Lockett for a 52-yard pass down the sideline in the fourth quarter.
“It was the third start of his career and you start to see some things from him — (Waters) was making some passes in that ballgame — we haven’t had a quarterback that can spin a ball like that in a long time,” Dimel said.
“He made his mistakes, but he made some plays in that game alone that really got us excited about what he’s going to progress to be. We felt like with this extra month of preparation, it would make a big difference in (the bowl) game because of so much more experience within our system, and it showed against Michigan.”
Waters passed for at least 250 yards five times this season — his biggest output coming against Oklahoma when he threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns against the Sooners. The Iowa native threw five of his nine interceptions this season in the first three games and then just four more in the remaining 10 games.
“You give Jake time to throw, he’s going to find the open man — he’s going to get it there,” returning center B.J. Finney said.
Waters’ improvement throughout the season was evident — even resulting in Sams being limited to just 10 total plays in the final three games. While Sams was losing playing time, Waters was at his best, according to Dimel.
“(That) was the best I’ve seen Jake,” Dimel said of Waters following his bowl game performance. “Just running the ball, he ran it well, made some people miss. That first touchdown to Tyler, its all all-out blitz and made a guy miss and gets his feet back under him and makes a play. He did some really great things and had a good understanding of what we wanted to do and how to attack them. If he doesn’t orchestrate it, it’s not going to work.”