Bill Snyder flashed a smile after Kansas State beat West Virginia 24-23 on Saturday when someone asked him to describe how proud he was of his team.
Where to begin?
They started the season with three straight victories despite injuries to their starting quarterback and top defensive player. Then they lost six in a row, and the prospect of reaching a bowl seemed far-fetched. But they kept pushing. Snyder said he will always remember this team for improving its practice habits during a losing streak. Now they are on another winning streak.
“They have that never-say-die spirit,” Snyder said.
That was most evident Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium, when K-State, 6-6 overall and 3-6 in the Big 12, capped a tumultuous regular season with a come-from-behind victory against West Virginia, 7-5 and 4-5.
K-State clinched a .500 record and guaranteed spot in a sixth straight postseason game, likely the Liberty Bowl against a SEC opponent.
Players targeted those achievements as goals last month when they sat at the bottom of the conference standings. Many scoffed at their chances of reaching those goals.
Not only did they face long odds, they appeared doomed when they trailed Iowa State by a touchdown in the final moments of a home game two weeks ago. But they rallied for victory, crushed rival Kansas and then finished the regular season in style.
The Wildcats wildly celebrated their latest win by making a victory lap around the field before heading to the locker room.
This isn’t one of the best teams Snyder has coached at K-State, but it certainly is one of the most resilient.
“It’s just great with all that we have been through, losing six conference games straight,” senior left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “We didn’t know where we were, but we found our identity, fought back and played tough. Today we are fortunate enough to be 6-6.”
K-State got there the hard way with another close finish Saturday, fighting back from a 13-3 halftime deficit without the services of starting quarterback Joe Hubener.
Hubener, a junior, exited on the opening drive of the third quarter, leaving Kody Cook, a receiver doubling as the team’s fifth-string quarterback, to lead the offense. He made an immediate impact and guided K-State to a comeback.
“Every youngster in our program has a great deal of confidence in Kody,” Snyder said. “I think maybe when your No. 1 quarterback goes down, then, normally there is some type of emotional letdown. With Kody coming onto the field, I did not sense that letdown. I think they felt comfortable that he could step in and make plays.”
Cook was in a similar situation earlier this season against Oklahoma State and responded by leading K-State on four touchdown drives in the first half. He was equally impressive on Saturday, completing four of 11 passes for 121 yards and a score while engineering a pair of third-quarter touchdown drives.
His biggest play came on a 77-yard pass to Deante Burton in which the receiver caught a deep pass and beat his man to the pylon. Combined with a quarterback sneak for a score, K-State was on top 17-13 with 11:14 remaining in the third quarter.
“Coming in that second half, we knew it was do-or-die,” Burton said. “That play may have been the tipping point. I think that catapulted us to a level we needed to be at to finish the game.”
Still, it wasn’t easy. West Virginia went back ahead behind running back Wendell Smallwood, who rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown in 25 carries. West Virginia led 23-17 early in the fourth quarter.
But K-State went ahead for good moments later when senior defensive back Morgan Burns returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown with 12:53 remaining. It was his fourth special-teams touchdown in as many games. And it was his fourth kickoff return for a touchdown of the season, tying him with Brandon Banks for the school’s single-season record.
Burns’ play helped K-State win despite being outgained 447 yards to 304 on total offense. This was a vintage Snyder victory.
“Kansas State won the way Kansas State wins,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “… I have never been a part of a game where (special teams) really was the difference in the game. That is what Kansas State does.”
The Wildcats clinched the game on defense with a series of important stops. The biggest belonged to linebacker Charmeachealle Moore, who made 17 tackles, when the Mountaineers went for it on fourth and 1 at midfield.
On the play, West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard tried to fool K-State with a misdirection play and took off to his left after faking a handoff to his right, but K-State’s Moore smothered him.
“I had no idea I had that many tackles,” Moore said. “I was just playing. When I heard I made 17 tackles, it was just a blessing that I was able to be in the right places to make those plays.”
This may go down as K-State’s most impressive victory of the season. West Virginia entered on a four-game winning streak.
K-State was the first outside of the Big 12’s top four teams to defeat the Mountaineers. That seemed unlikely two weeks ago.
“At any point in this season we could have tanked and just decided to come back next year,” Burton said. “To fight and get to a bowl game and maybe finish with a winning record really shows the resiliency of this team. We have a lot of it.”
KANSAS STATE 24
WEST VIRGINIA 23
WVU: FG Lambert 45, 2:54.
KSU: FG McCrane 40, 11:10.
WVU: Durante 24 pass from S.Howard (Lambert kick), 2:36.
WVU: FG Lambert 19, :00.
KSU: Cook 1 run (McCrane kick), 12:28.
KSU: Burton 77 pass from Cook (McCrane kick), 11:14.
WVU: Smallwood 14 run (Lambert kick), 6:28.
WVU: FG Lambert 28, 13:07.
KSU: Burns 97 kickoff return (McCrane kick), 12:53.
Pnt/Int Ret Yds
RUSHING: West Virginia, Smallwood 25-141, Shell 7-38, S.Howard 10-(minus 13). Kansas St., Jones 14-44, Cook 19-34, Hubener 12-15, Silmon 3-5, Warmack 1-0.
PASSING: West Virginia, S.Howard 19-42-0-281. Kansas St., Hubener 6-19-2-85, Cook 4-12-0-121.
RECEIVING: West Virginia, Shorts Jr. 7-68, Thompson 5-127, Durante 4-57, White 1-14, Gibson 1-11, Shell 1-4. Kansas St., Burton 5-135, Dimel 1-27, Klein 1-17, Cook 1-15, A.Davis 1-13, Jones 1-(minus 1).
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett