For a coach with a 20-2 record in openers, Bill Snyder has had a curiously difficult time getting Kansas State off to fast starts since coming out of retirement five seasons ago.
A 24-21 loss to North Dakota State last season snapped his 20-game winning streak in openers, but K-State had been flirting with disaster since 2009, when a 21-17 victory over Massachusetts prompted Snyder to write an apology to fans. The Wildcats followed that with a solid win over UCLA in 2010, but they had to come from behind late to beat Eastern Kentucky 10-7 in 2011. Then they waited until the fourth quarter to bury Missouri State in 2012.
Senior receiver Tyler Lockett summed up the trend last month when a reporter asked him how much he was looking forward to a midweek game against Auburn on Sept. 18.
“We have always struggled the first game out since I’ve been here, so I don’t even look past the first game,” Lockett said. “We can’t keep getting off to these slow starts.
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“I look at it like I used to look at the high school basketball tournament — you lose and you’re out. I wouldn’t get comfortable in the first game until we were up double digits. I wanted to make sure we won. It’s the same thing now.
“I’m not going to relax until the clock hits zero on that first game. I’m not looking at Iowa State or Auburn or any other team on the schedule. Let’s take it one team at a time and put ourselves in position to play well in our first game. To focus on anything else would be foolish.”
That mind-set, alone, may be enough for K-State to shake its habit of playing down to the competition when Stephen F. Austin, a Football Championship Subdivision team that changed coaches after a 3-9 finish last year, visits Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday.
The Lumberjacks don’t compare with North Dakota State, a veteran team with skilled playmakers and an experienced coach that was on its way to winning its third consecutive FCS championship. Some analysts picked North Dakota State to pull the upset last year. This time, K-State is a big favorite.
Still, the Wildcats enter the game with something to prove, not only to themselves and to their fans, but to their coach.
“It’s the same thing that we always talk about,” said Snyder when asked about his point of emphasis this week. “No. 1: Not taking anything for granted, not taking their own performance for granted, not taking their improvement for granted and not taking opponents for granted.
“The other component is just continue to improve. It is just not a week of preparation that you plateau in your improvement. That has to be ongoing throughout the course of the year. Just keep getting better and better, that is virtually all we talk about.”
K-State players are tired of hearing the speech.
“Coach has been talking about it ever since the end of last year, through spring ball and summer,” senior quarterback Jake Waters said. “We need to start fast, because that can dictate how the season goes. Last year we didn’t start fast and we struggled for a while until we got things going. We want to start fast and get our confidence rolling. Hopefully everything will take off from there.”
It’s been a while since K-State placed so much importance on a game against a seemingly overmatched opponent. Even in recent years, the Wildcats felt like they could turn on their top form like a light switch against FCS competition and win, even late in a close game.
Before that, Snyder’s teams usually cruised at the start of each season. After a 31-0 loss to Arizona State in his first game as K-State’s coach, Snyder reeled off 16 straight wins in openers with an average victory margin of nearly 24 points. He led the Wildcats to a 66-0 win over Indiana State and a 40-0 win over Temple in back-to-back seasons. He guided his team to victories over Southern California, Iowa, California and Texas Tech.
Snyder often used the simplest offense, everyone on the team regularly played and fans always went home happy.
The same type of results were expected when he came out of retirement, Instead, K-State’s victory margin has dropped to 11 points since 2009.
The differences can be explained in many ways. For starters, K-State had more top-to-bottom talent during Snyder’s first stint as coach, while lower classification teams generally had much less talent than they do today. First-week upsets are also becoming more common, which gives hope to smaller schools. There is also a certain sense of invincibility that sets in after 20 straight victories in openers.
Losing to North Dakota State shattered that.
“We are very focused,” senior linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “Our main goal is to not take anything for granted, whether that is in the film room or the practice room or the classroom. We are not going to take anything for granted. That keeps us level-headed and focused and ready to go.
“It’s not just last year, but even years before that. We have come out really slow and I think we just really want to come out fast this year and change it up.”
Snyder is glad to see his players prepare for Stephen F. Austin the same way they do Oklahoma. He couldn’t care less about his record in openers. He just wants to win on Saturday.
His players share the same mentality.
“We want to start fast,” Waters said. “First drive, first play, we want to get everything rolling.”