Noble and unnecessary, admirable and unfair, a 22-year old college junior emerges from a tense and quiet locker room to claim a responsibility that he undoubtedly feels and just as certainly should not.
“I apologize to K-State fans,” kicker Matt McCrane said. “We were in that game, and I should’ve done it for my team, and I wasn’t able to do it.”
The Wildcats lost what qualifies as an important football game against West Virginia here on a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon. On the scoreboard, they lost 17-16. On the field, they lost by maybe four feet, the distance between McCrane’s 43-yard field goal attempt and the inside of the left upright with just more than 2 minutes left.
After that, West Virginia kneeled on it three times, the sideline emptied in celebration, and a sold-out crowd on homecoming weekend was singing John Denver.
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A win here, combined with what might be the weakest field in the 22-year history of the Big 12, would’ve given Kansas State reason to believe. West Virginia had what might be the best non-conference win of any league team, against Missouri. K-State’s only loss was at Stanford, a top 10 team entering the weekend. K-State should’ve won this one, too.
The Wildcats led throughout, pulling the magic trick of turning a 2016 college football game into a contest of defense and field position. This is the K-State formula. Instead, one of the smallest guys on the team is standing tall in front of cameras and notebooks and taking blame for a much bigger failure.
“To cost our team the first conference game, it’s big,” McCrane said. “And I apologize for that.”
If you made a list of the reasons K-State lost this game, and you are a functioning adult, you might run out of paper before you got to McCrane — and not just because college kickers from that distance miss about four of 10 tries.
“They all hurt,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “They all hurt. Particularly when you know you’re probably good enough. We let them get away.”
The coaching — and this isn’t said often with Snyder in charge — let the Wildcats down. Most obviously, you saw this with offensive coordinator Dana Dimel’s play calling, and as just one example we present K-State’s second-to-last drive, when they still had the lead in the fourth quarter, and simply needed to burn clock or put the game away with a field goal.
On first down, Dimel called a pass play that resulted in Ertz throwing incomplete deep. On second down, a run-pass option that depended on an offensive line that had been blown up much of the afternoon. They went three and out, giving West Virginia the ball near midfield, plenty of time, the crowd here fully re-engaged after booing the home team before halftime.
Defensively, the coaches left cornerback D.J. Reed in single coverage, with no help, against West Virginia star Shelton Gibson far too many times. Gibson beat Reed 104 yards, including a 52-yarder in which Reed knocked Gibson’s helmet off.
You also saw this with so many wasted timeouts, illegal substitution penalties, and on at least one occasion quarterback Jesse Ertz looking at the sideline for the call with seven seconds left on the play clock.
“A little bit of everything,” Snyder said. “Part of it is getting the calls in on time, part of it is changing calls, and part of it is not paying attention to the clock as well as we should. So it’s kind of a discipline thing.”
K-State should have won this game. Maybe that’s a strange thing to say when West Virginia outgained the Cats 136 yards. Games swing on the tiniest details.
Byron Pringle — was K-State’s leading receiver, and had a 58-yard kickoff return — couldn’t make a catch in the back of the end zone, and K-State settled for a field goal early in the third quarter.
K-State defensive lineman Jordan Willis — who was a consistent problem for West Virginia — was effectively mugged on what proved to be the winning touchdown pass, but no flag was thrown. Ertz had his worst game of the season, in subtle ways like the timing of some throws and obvious ways like the accuracy of others.
This was a blown opportunity, then, a winnable conference game on the road. K-State’s players know all of this, of course. Defensive end Jordan Willis talked of not letting one loss turn into more, the way it may have happened last year after the Oklahoma State game. Pringle talked about needing to finish, both plays and games, something he mentioned the coaches always stress.
Snyder was characteristically honest. He recognized the shortcomings of certain players or position groups, and stressed mistakes and needed improvements from his coaches. “I’ve got to do a better job,” he said, which means it falls on his assistants because Snyder has always said his duty is to coach the coaches.
This was not, in other words, about a kicker.
“That’s one mistake,” Snyder said. “And there’s not a guy on the field that made less than one mistake.”
Same can be said of the coaches.