Dana Dimel was in the dumps when it looked like Kansas State was going to lose its seventh straight game and clinch a losing season on the same afternoon six weeks ago.
After turning the ball over on downs late against Iowa State, all hope of a postseason trip seemed lost. The Cyclones had the lead and the ball, with the ability to run out the clock. The Wildcats were on the verge of falling to 3-7, and Dimel let his emotions show like a disgruntled fan from his seat in the pressbox.
“I took my play calling sheet and started folding it up and put it on the desk,” said Dimel, K-State’s offensive coordinator. “Then I said, ‘We aren’t going to a bowl game. This is crazy.’ ”
Good thing he didn’t head for the elevator, too. K-State’s bowl hopes were quickly resurrected when Iowa State fumbled on the next play and the Wildcats miraculously scored a touchdown to tie the game and then kicked a field goal to win it.
“When that happened and we got that second chance,” Dimel said, “it was like, guys we have to grasp this opportunity, and we did. What an opportunity.”
K-State is still riding the momentum of that fateful victory over Iowa State. Instead of dropping out of bowl contention, the Wildcats recovered from a six-game skid with three consecutive victories to finish 6-6 and earn an invitation to the Liberty Bowl against Arkansas.
Some teams would look down on a postseason game in Memphis against a 7-5 opponent, considering it a meaningless exhibition. Not K-State. Even after playing in bigger games like the Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Alamo Bowl in recent years, the Wildcats are thrilled to be here.
After all they went through this season, they consider this game as another opportunity they need to take advantage of.
“It makes us more grateful to be here,” K-State defensive tackle Travis Britz said. “I think it drove us to work harder in practice. We have been working extremely hard. We haven’t had the mentality that this is a lost season or this is some nice little gift. We want to finish above .500. There is a little more motivation for this bowl game than others.”
Senior defensive back Morgan Burns, winner of countless kick returner honors this past month, said he would trade his entire award collection for a Liberty Bowl victory.
“That’s how important this game is to us,” he said.
K-State coach Bill Snyder likes that intensity. He described the team’s Tuesday practice in Memphis as “the most spirited practice of the season.”
He also describes playing in this game as an honor and says he has enjoyed working with fired up players. He was in such a good mood earlier this week that he showed off his dance skills by doing the Dab — popularized by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton — in front of players, drawing rave reviews on social media.
“I have a special feeling for the young guys and the coaches in this program, this particular year,” Snyder said, “because of what they went through and their willingness not to give in.”
Senior left tackle Cody Whitehair ranks K-State’s resolve this season above anything else he experienced during his distinguished career.
“The stuff we had to go through and the obstacles we saw this season and the way this team overcame them,” Whitehair said, “I think is something that will stick with me forever.”
It will be even more memorable if K-State can add a bowl victory. Snyder thinks his team’s mind-set will help.
Motivation can be a crucial factor at a bowl, and it has been so far this season. How else do you explain Nebraska upsetting UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl? The Cornhuskers won five games in the regular season, playing in the bowl because there weren’t enough traditional bowl-eligible teams to fill the slot, while the Bruins spent much of the year ranked.
For years, powerhouse teams have blamed lack of motivation for losses in middle-tier bowls.
That won’t be an issue for K-State against Arkansas.
“It is always an advantage when your team is pleased to be somewhere,” Dimel said. “Right now, Kansas State is very pleased to be in a bowl game. As we all know, we had to fight, scrap and crawl our way to it.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett
▪ WHO: Kansas State vs. Arkansaas
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 2:20 p.m. today in Memphis, Tenn.
▪ TV: ESPN