Coach Bill Snyder was asked a simple question at the conclusion of Auburn’s 20-14 victory over Kansas State on Thursday.
Did the No. 5 Tigers deserve credit for winning the game or did the No. 20 Wildcats deserve blame for losing it?
“The latter,” Snyder answered.
Negative thoughts will continue to dominate the minds of Snyder and his players when they reflect on this defeat. As soon as the game ended, many were already asking: what could have been?
“We should have won that game,” said K-State senior receiver Curry Sexton, who had a game-high 11 catches for 121 yards.
The Wildcats had ample chances. They could have built a lead at Snyder Family Stadium and edged the Tigers in one of the most anticipated nonconference games of the season, playing above expectations on defense and getting solid field position out of its return units.
But a multitude of unforced errors and uncharacteristic mistakes held them back.
A sampling of the lowlights: Tyler Lockett bobbled a well-thrown pass in the end zone that ended up in the hands of Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones for an interception in the first quarter. Jake Waters tossed two interceptions and fumbled twice, losing one deep in K-State’s territory and dropping another late in the second quarter that left kicker Jack Cantele with a 42-yard attempt instead of an easier try. And the normally sure-footed Cantele missed three field-goal attempts.
Cantele had made 13 of 16 career field-goal attempts before Thursday. He missed two all of last season. But he was at his worst in front of 53,046 rowdy fans, the fifth-largest home crowd in K-State history. He missed left on a 41-yard attempt in the first quarter. He missed right on a 42-yard attempt on the final play of the second quarter. Then he flubbed a 22-yard attempt in the third quarter. He was eventually replaced by freshman kicker Matthew McCrane for a fourth-quarter extra point.
K-State missed out on 16 points. Few teams can waste opportunities like that and hang with Auburn.
“We as a team left that game on the field,” Sexton said. “If we as an offense take the ball and put it in the end zone like we should, (Cantele) doesn’t even have to try. He goes out and kicks an extra point instead of a field goal. With the wind swirling like that, I’m sure the kicks were ridiculously tough. I feel for Jack, he’s a good kicker. But we have got to pick him up.”
Still, Auburn clung to just a 10-7 lead as the fourth quarter began.
K-State had put itself in position with a quality defensive effort. Ryan Mueller and Travis Britz led the way up front, knocking down passes by Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and clogging running lanes when the Tigers tried to break away on the perimeter. Auburn entered the game averaging 330 rushing yards. They had rushed for 200 or more yards in 12 straight games. The Tigers managed only 128 on the ground against K-State, finding more success — 231 yards — through the air.
“I thought we played well; obviously not well enough,” Mueller said. “We could have held them to a lot less. … The defense just could have played a bit better. We didn’t make plays when we needed to make plays.”
Seldom-used linebacker Dakorey Johnson also made a difference for K-State, making tackles for losses and grabbing an interception. Danzel McDaniel delivered some big hits.
For a while, it seemed as if K-State’s defense would match Auburn until the end. Especially when DeMarcus Robinson took advantage of a big hole and scored his first career touchdown on a 3-yard run that gave the Wildcats a 7-3 lead with 4 minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Auburn answered immediately with a 40-yard TD pass from Marshall to Ricardo Louis. On the play, Louis juked past three K-State defenders to reach the end zone.
The game remained close until the fourth quarter. But with no support from its offense, which managed just 40 rushing yards, K-State’s defense began to wear down. The same Auburn runs that previously went nowhere were suddenly picking up first downs.
A 9-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to D’haquille Williams less than a minute into the fourth quarter seemed to put the game out of reach. Auburn had finally imposed its will on K-State.
“We’re very, very happy to get a tough-earned victory,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
The Wildcats tried to mount a comeback, scoring a touchdown on a short Charles Jones run with fewer than 4 minutes remaining that made the score 20-14. But it wasn’t enough. Auburn converted on third-and-long on the next possession with a 39-yard pass from Marshall to Williams and ran out the clock.
Auburn won by doing things few teams can against K-State, such as containing Lockett. He was held to 45 yards on six catches.
Waters completed 24 of 40 passes for 245 yards, but three turnovers negated his work. K-State’s biggest offensive weakness was its running game.
“They were a fast defense,” Robinson said. “The coaches gave us some great opportunities to make plays, but we came up a little bit short. They were real physical.”
A group that averaged 236 rushing yards in its first game could do nothing against Auburn’s front seven. Robinson led the Wildcats with 25 yards. Charles Jones had 22 yards and a touchdown. No one else managed positive yardage.
On a mistake-prone night, K-State needed more.