In the simplest sense, this was a night 45 years in the making for Kansas State. After all, it was 1969 when No. 2 Penn State was the last non-conference team ranked in the top five to play here.
That’s tucked so far in the way-back machine that Bill Snyder was a whippersnapper of 30 coaching football at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
But even that time frame understates the context of K-State’s nationally televised 20-14 loss to No. 5 Auburn on Thursday night, when the game not coincidentally also was trending on Twitter.
Quite simply, this was an opportunity for a national splash almost unprecedented since K-State began playing football in 1896.
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Never mind that as Snyder was hoisting the program out of its history of futility, K-State enjoyed meaningful and pivotal victories (see: Nebraska 1998, Oklahoma 2003, Oklahoma 2012) that still would have trumped this one.
Those also were on a different sort of stage.
Along the way, Snyder’s program also absorbed piercing shortfalls, none more painful than the double-overtime loss to Texas A&M (after leading by 15 points in the fourth quarter) in the 1998 Big 12 championship game when victory would have catapulted the Wildcats into the BCS title game.
And what became a six-point loss to Auburn will be nestled somewhere in between those mileposts in K-State lore.
You could see that, too, in the perspective of Snyder, who clearly was agitated afterward but nonetheless accepted the notion that this was a step forward in the big scheme.
“Three forward,” he said, “one back.”
More poignantly, and in stark contrast to his unfortunate in-the-moment comparison of that A&M loss to a death in the family, Snyder ended his news conference with a few personal notes of his own.
“Those of you who’ve been around the conference, don’t you forget about Donnie Duncan,” the former coach and Big 12 founding father whom Snyder said was fighting for his life.
Also apparently in reference to a slain Topeka policeman, Snyder shrugged off the notion that K-State has any real troubles.
Instead, it had, simply, a missed opportunity.
In front of more than 53,000 fans, one of the top five crowds in school history, the 20th-ranked Wildcats were poised for one last chance to upend Auburn before Nick Marshall’s 39-yard pass on third and 9 with 2 minutes 6 seconds left snuffed it all out.
That trumped an otherwise valiant effort by the defense, but was just the last in a remarkable series of squandered chances for K-State, which missed three field goals and committed unforced turnovers on its first two drives.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Snyder said.
For a long, long time, though, it looked as if the Wildcats might be able to get away with them because of a terrific defensive plan and execution.
Auburn entered the game averaging 52 points, a season after it hadn’t been held below 30 points in its final 10 games.
K-State, meanwhile, had allowed 28 points against Iowa State … and, for that matter, even surrendered 16 to Stephen F. Austin.
But here the Wildcats were, staying air-tight disciplined on schemes that befuddled Missouri in last year’s SEC title game and forcing Auburn to churn and grind series after series after series.
This was supposed to be a track meet, if K-State could keep up. Instead, it was reduced to a turtle race.
K-State rushed for just 40 yards in 30 carries, but it was all the more notable that Auburn managed to scoot for just 128 yards in 45 carries.
Trouble was, while the Wildcats were muzzling the Tigers most of the first half (49 yards in the first quarter, 10 points in the first 30 minutes), they were flailing instead of availing themselves of the moment.
Uncharacteristically as could be, quarterback Jake Waters fumbled at K-State’s 24 without being hit by anyone but the back he was faking to.
Auburn might have pounced there, but K-State’s defense forced a field goal, and suddenly the Wildcats drove 74 yards on 10 plays … only for the most improbable play of the game to take place.
Tyler Lockett, as locked-in a receiver as there is, scorched Auburn’s Jonathan Jones and wiggled open into the end zone.
But he couldn’t handle Waters’ pass from the 2-yard line, which ricocheted off his shoulder pads … back to Jones.
That encapsulated the improbable breaks that fell for Auburn, which had a few flubs of its own.
Jones, after all, already had been nabbed twice for pass interference.
Such is the game, though, and this one should be remembered squarely in the middle — as much for K-State smothering one of the most explosive offensive forces in the nation as for frittering away its chances to score.
It could have been more, yes, but as Snyder knows, there was progress here and no matter of life and death, either.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.