GLENDALE, Ariz. — Collin Klein is running and when he does it like this, ball tucked high up his arm toward his bicep, he looks about as fast as a part-time security guard. Maybe thats part of why so many of us underestimated him in the beginning.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
But here he goes anyway, like a freight train at top speed. His receivers are all covered. That means most of the defense isnt looking. These are the moments that gave him that Optimus Klein nickname. He starts running, fast as his legs will carry him, straight for the front corner of the end zone. He knows the cornerback will meet him there for a collision. This is Klein at his best. Switches the ball to his outside arm, and even in a race against the Fastest Team In College Football, Klein can hold his own.
Hes faster than he looks, in that way. Tougher than most anyone whos tried to tackle him, too, and that means this arm tackle is only ending up on the highlight reel. Klein runs through those arms, of course, and the cornerback tumbles out of bounds, the momentum taking out the referee, too.
It was one of the most Collin Klein plays you can see Klein doing what Klein do, as the kids say and it will be a symbol of what we remember about the perfect Kansas State football player.
He sums up everything were about as a team, Wildcats senior wide receiver Chris Harper says. Hes probably the toughest dude Ive ever met.
It wasnt enough Thursday night in the Fiesta Bowl, as No. 7 Kansas State lost 35-17 to No. 5 Oregon in the best postseason college football matchup outside Mondays national championship. Oregon was faster, more explosive, and K-State made too many of the kinds of mistakes they avoided to get here. Other than the touchdown run, Klein had a mostly ineffectual game, and when that happens, K-State is a lesser team.
We were beaten by a better team, K-State coach Bill Snyder says. We just didnt play that way. We just made too many mistakes.
The loss was frustratingly reminiscent of the Baylor loss for K-State, an inability to keep up on the scoreboard and a questionable lack of commitment to run forcing a fan base to think more season-long success than one-night disappointment.
Which is part of why K-State fans have reason to worry now.
The Wildcats, 11-2, just finished one of the greatest seasons in school history. This is Snyders Manhattan Miracle 2.0, a third Fiesta Bowl for a program once on its way to Division I-AA obscurity. This is one of the greatest coaches in his sports history, teaming with an irrepressible quarterback for a run of accomplishment that became respected and cheered even by their rivals.
Together, they created something of a season-long clinic on winning without flash. Their favorite play was the quarterback draw, where Klein pauses for a few moments before running behind his big friends in front of him. They went half a season without a turnover on offense. Didnt give up a point off a turnover until the 10th game. They beat four ranked teams, scored 50 on two of them, and climbed all the way to the top of the BCS standings before that dud in Waco on a Saturday night.
Klein went to the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist, and Snyder was up for national coach of the year awards. They did so much together, and not just those two but a team driven largely by a senior class that actually came to play for a different coach.
We had a great opportunity to be part of this team, K-State senior linebacker Arthur Brown says. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a new season our leadership as seniors is not over.
But their play is, and this is where the worries come.
K-State returns just two starters on defense. Klein is a senior. Same with Harper, the leading receiver. And Olathe Easts Travis Tannahill, the starting tight end.
This is how it often goes in college football, of course, especially at places like K-State that dont have the depth to turn four-star recruits into backups. New players must step in, always. Thats the cycle of life.
But this will be another enormous task, even for Snyder.
You might remember the last time K-State won a Big 12 title. That was 2003, the year Darren Sproles led the nation in rushing and the Wildcats upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the conference championship at Arrowhead Stadium. That was another glorious year for K-State, which made the fall that much more surprising.
The Wildcats lost seven games the next year, and six more the year after that. Snyder retired, Ron Prince came in, and, with the notable exception of a few games against Texas, things never improved.
For a while, you couldnt be sure if K-State would have any more seasons like this, the kind that would force people to look at the program from the middle of the country as a national power.
As it turned out, we had to wait almost a decade to see it. Snyders next challenge is to prevent a fan base thats come to believe ubiquitously in his chops from suffering through another gap like that.
Hes whipped bigger challenges than this. One of the best seasons hes ever coached now over, a region waits to see if he can do it again.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.