ARLINGTON, Texas — In sports, there is a winner and a loser. While winning can cure all woes, losing can be destroy a team from the inside out. Losing can really show a team’s true colors. How do they handle it? Do they learn from their mistakes, or do they get down on themselves? On Saturday inside AT&T Stadium, we saw Kansas State’s answer play out on the field.
While Kansas State was a team on everyone’s radar in the Big 12, nobody was really talking about them a whole lot in the preseason. You knew they were going to have a solid defense and Deuce Vaughn was arguably the best running back in all of college football. Yet the biggest question about them was the quarterback situation with Adrian Martinez.
The first two games for Kansas State were easy. They took care of South Dakota and Missouri with ease before slipping up to Tulane and an ugly 17-10 game. How did Kansas State respond? They ended up going to Norman the very next week and knocking off a 3-0 Oklahoma team. Kansas State would follow up their win against Oklahoma with a couple of close victories against Texas Tech and Iowa State before their big matchup with an undefeated TCU team.
Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez ended up playing the first drive of that game in late October before going out with a lingering injury. Backup quarterback Will Howard stepped in and led Kansas State to four-straight scoring drives, but then fell flat in the second half. Despite having a 28-10 lead in that game, Kansas State ended up losing that game by double digits.
The Wildcats then responded with a big 48-0 win over a shorthanded Oklahoma State team. But then Adrian Martinez came back from his injury against Texas on November 5th. Late in the game, Martinez ended up fumbling and Texas ended up walking out of Manhattan, Kansas with a 34-27 victory.
“The players were upset with the fact that they let an opportunity slip. But you can’t trip on something that is behind you. You just have to focus on the next game and move on,” said Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman.
With their backs against the wall, Kansas State never looked back and played their best football late in the season. Will Howard took over the starting quarterback job and the Wildcats went on a three-game winning streak to end the regular season. They put a beatdown on Baylor in Waco before taking care of business against West Virginia and in-state rival Kansas to earn themselves a spot in the Big 12 title game.
“These last four weeks our preparation before the game has been as good as anything I have ever been involved with guys who own it, lock into the final details, and play with unbelieve focus,” Klieman said. “Our guys have been razor sharp.”
Once again, Kansas State got another shot at TCU, but the stakes were much higher. And this time, it was going to be different.
“We weren’t coming here for a participation trophy. We were coming here to win the thing,” added Klieman. And that is exactly what Kansas State did.
Despite injuries to their best receiver (Malik Knowles) and their starting cornerback (Ekow Boye-Doe), the Wildcats found a way to win the game. When the offense struggled, Deuce Vaughn stepped up and made big plays and Will Howard managed to keep the offense moving without turning the football over.
As to what makes Will Howard so special? Klieman simply summed it up, “Will Howard is a flat-out winner.” He added, “But I credit both him and Adrian (Martinez) for how this has gone this year. Both kids helped us win a Big 12 championship for sure. Both kids rallied around each other when the other one wasn’t playing. That’s a culture. That’s a sign of a group of guys who love each other.”
Not only did Kansas State get back up after their falls, but they kept moving forward and kept battling as a team. The way they responded after their mistakes helped them win a Big 12 Championship.
However, their work this season isn’t done. Next up is the Sugar Bowl for a chance to win their first New Year’s Six bowl game since the 2001 Cotton Bowl when they beat Tennessee 35-21.
Will Kansas State have that same edge in that game after a win like this? Based on how this team has followed Klieman’s moto of, “You just have to focus on the next game and move on,” there’s little doubt whoever K-State plays in New Orleans will get this team’s best. That’s how their built.