MANHATTAN (TNS) — On the field before Kansas State kicked off against West Virginia, a bowl-game official attending his first game here looked around a stadium filled with purple coats, hats and rain gear and was amazed at the atmosphere on a miserable day.
But the Wildcats’ bowling experience this season may be of the shoe rental variety after Saturday’s 28-23 loss to West Virginia.
If Kansas State’s streak of consecutive bowl seasons ends at seven this season, the Cats may look back on this one with the most regret.
At one point Saturday, K-State was plus-four in turnover margin and still trailed. Redshirt freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson made his first career start and made one costly mistake. But he played well enough to get the Wildcats through this one.
Saturday was a toss-up game that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen found difficult to break down. “I don’t quite know how we won it,” he said.
K-State’s Bill Snyder, never one to skimp on praise of an opponent, gave West Virginia its due but believed his side was more responsible for the outcome.
“It was in our hands,” Snyder said. “It was ours to win or lose. We could have so easily have won the ball game, won it handily. It was just a matter of doing things the right way.”
But the end of the first half couldn’t have turned out more wrong for K-State, which appeared to be running out the clock. The Wildcats had recovered a fumble and started at their 39 with 48 seconds remaining. The first play lost 4 yards, and K-State seemed in no hurry for the next snap.
Some fans booed, but given the wet conditions and Thompson’s inexperience, this was reasonable strategy.
But on the second play, Thompson attempted an inside screen pass to fullback Winston Dimel. West Virginia lineman Ezekiel Rose stepped in for the interception.
Ten seconds remained. Time for a quick hit and a field-goal attempt, but when quarterback Will Grier scrambled out of trouble, as he did throughout the first half, it became apparent this would be the Mountaineers’ final play.
They made the most of it with a 30-yard touchdown pass as time expired, and in a flash K-State’s one point deficit became eight.
Kansas State’s play call that resulted in the pick was baffling on a couple of levels. What was the objective? A big gain didn’t seem likely, so why not keep it on the ground and run out the clock?
And Thompson, the Fort Osage High product starting because of injuries to Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton, can be excused for a lack of awareness on the play. Why put him in that spot?
Snyder took the blame and acknowledged the importance of the moment. There really wasn’t much to say. A program that has thrived on sound decisions and execution was undone by this one, and the turn of events loomed large when the only points scored in the second half came on a Matthew McCrane field goal.
With games remaining at Oklahoma State and Iowa State, Saturday figured to be Kansas State’s best chance at a bowl-qualifying victory. Postseason play is part of the Wildcats’ identity and culture. Missing out would leave a void and a sour taste for a program that had designs on a conference championship.
What remains for the Wildcats: bowl eligibility and the opportunity to finish with a winning record, qualities that are expected in Manhattan.
“We have a standard here that guys before us have set,” senior linebacker Trent Tanking said. “If you don’t go back to what your program is based on, you’ve got nothing.”
What Kansas State has at the moment are triumphs over an FCS program and four over FBS opponents that have a combined eight victories heading into Saturday night’s action.
The Cats have been excruciatingly close, with four losses by seven points or less. They just can’t seem to find a consistent winning formula this season and a postseason streak is on the line.