SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ty Zimmerman could only watch.
A week after suffering a leg injury in Kansas State’s victory at TCU, the junior safety was sidelined for what turned out to be the Wildcats’ biggest game of the year against one of the best offenses in the country.
It showed, and the Wildcats were blown out by the Bears in Waco, ending K-State’s national title hopes and leaving everyone asking, ‘what might have been?” had Zimmerman played and been able to anchor a defense that had been so good for much of the season.
“It was tough,” Zimmerman said Saturday. “Watching from the sidelines, there’s only so much you can do and so many words you can say. The only thing you can do is go out and play and I couldn’t do that.”
Dante Barnett got the start for Zimmerman against Baylor and Texas. Against the Bears, though, the freshman was picked on the entire game. After all, Barnett was filling in for an All-American safety against one of the most potent offenses K-State had seen all season — with everything on the line.
“I don’t want to say things would’ve been different,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think one person can make that much of a difference.”
Now Zimmerman is set for a comeback when the fifth-ranked Wildcats (11-1) meet the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday night at 7:30 (CST) at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
And while just one guy may not make all the difference, against a team like Oregon, having Zimmerman back sure doesn’t hurt the Wildcats’ chances.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s played a lot of Big 12 football,” K-State defensive coordinator and secondary coach Tom Hayes said. “Having him out of the lineup cannot be good for your defense.”
The Junction City native began to move around more in that week following the Texas game. He shed the walking boot and the crutches and soon the idea of actually coming back for the Fiesta Bowl became more of a possibility.
Zimmerman returned to practice just days before the Wildcats broke for Christmas and has had good practices since.
“Anytime you have an injury, you have to push past some pain,” said Zimmerman, who has a Big 12-leading five interceptions this season. “So far, so good. I’ve been blessed to heal pretty quick.”
What Zimmerman brings to the field for the Wildcats goes beyond just making plays against the pass or the ball carrier. Hayes, who is in his first season as coordinator, said Zimmerman accounts for a lot of things that are rarely seen in a box score on Sundays.
“He makes a lot of calls for us,” Hayes said. “He gets us in the right defenses. We send a call in and let the safeties and linebackers check us into the right things. That’s what he does best. He’s a coach on the field.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, either.
“In the two years I’ve been here, I only have to tell him once,” Hayes said. “I never have to repeat anything with him. He just gets it. He’s a coach’s son. He’s grown up with it his whole life. He’s a gifted guy — a student of the game.”