Want to make Kansas State senior defensive end Ryan Mueller uncomfortable?
Show him pictures from last year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl that depict him dousing Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder in Gatorade. Mueller’s grinning sheepishly with Snyder angrily pointing to the scoreboard that shows time remaining. After he’s done squirming, ask him to sign the photographs … with Snyder standing by his side.
“The celebration might have been a little premature, but it certainly has provided some pictures,” Mueller said Tuesday at an Alamo Bowl news conference. “Believe it or not, I have signed them for numerous people in front of Coach Snyder and next to Coach Snyder. We kind of look at each other and chuckle when that happens.”
A year ago, Mueller wanted nothing more than to give his coach a sideline bath, calling it his dream. To make amends, he later allowed Snyder to dump cold Gatorade on his head as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. They are even.
Still, don’t expect Mueller to push his luck again Friday if K-State defeats UCLA at the Alamodome.
“I probably won’t do it,” Mueller said. “Gatorade baths are old now. But if the scoreboard does what I want it to say at the end of the game, I will probably go up to him and point out the scoreboard, just like he pointed it out to me.”
This is the new Mueller. A year older, a year wiser and a lot more focused. His goals have changed considerably from last season.
His new dream is to play his best in the Alamo Bowl and help K-State beat UCLA, giving the Wildcats a 10-win season and back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in a decade. Those memories will last with or without Gatorade baths or photos.
The best way for him to achieve those goals: tackle UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, a NFL prospect who has been the driving force for the Bruins’ offense. This season, he threw for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 70.4 percent of his passes.
“That’s a high number in modern-day football,” K-State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said.
UCLA is averaging 32.9 points, so few defenses have shut the Bruins down. But they have one major weakness – pass protection. In 12 regular-season games, UCLA allowed 38 sacks.
Mueller, K-State’s top pass-rusher, could — no, needs to — feast.
“We have to affect the quarterback,” Mueller said. “That statistic is certainly eye-popping and probably something UCLA is not proud of. It’s something we need to take advantage of and do everything in our power to get to the quarterback, get after him, either knock down his passes, tip balls, get those sacks, tackles for loss.”
This will be Mueller’s last chance to pile up sacks.
“What we have to do is make sure we make (Hundley) uncomfortable,” Hayes said. “You can’t always count on sacks, but as we tell our rush guys, we’re trying to get after the quarterback and affect him, get in his face, cause a bad throw, give us a chance to pick a ball or whatever.”
Though Mueller played well enough as a senior to earn first-team all-conference honors by the Big 12’s coaches, it was a down year by his standards, at least statistically.
As a junior, Mueller was a terror to opposing offensive lines, tying K-State’s single-season record for sacks with 11 1/2. He also had 62 tackles. This year, he has totaled more modest numbers — 5 1/2 sacks and 33 tackles.
Despite the drop in production, Snyder and Mueller say he is an improved player and that he’s doing more for K-State’s defense.
“The numbers may not indicate it, but I don’t think he is playing any worse,” Snyder said. “I think he is playing as well as he did last year, if not better.”
Mueller’s presence has demanded double teams, especially on third-and-longs, opening up rushing lanes for teammates.
“That will certainly hurt your numbers,” Mueller said. “But look where I am now. I am on a 9-3 football team. I am at a better bowl game (than last year). I am on a better overall defense. I couldn’t be more proud.”
His biggest improvement has been mental. A year ago, he went for the home run on every play, viewing every snap as a sack opportunity. That occasionally pushed him out of position to defend the run, and mobile quarterbacks were able to beat him with keepers and zone-read handoffs.
Hayes went so far as to say “there are times when he plays his own defense.” He is more disciplined today.
Still, the competitor inside of Mueller wants to go out with highlight sacks. He hasn’t recorded multiple sacks since the second game of the season, at Iowa State, and he hasn’t made more than five tackles in a game all year.
A big performance in the Alamo Bowl could move him past that and send him out on a high note.
Much like last year with the Gatorade bath, he wants it to happen. But his eyes are now on a bigger prize.
“I go into every game trying to get sacks and make plays, because I know that is what is going to help this team win and be successful,” Mueller said. “It would certainly be nice to end my season with a sack or two, but what I really want to end the season on is being on the stage with all my teammates with a trophy in hand. That is how I went to end my legacy at Kansas State.”
No. 11 Kansas State vs. No. 14 UCLA
WHAT: Alamo Bowl
WHEN: 5:45 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas