Dalton Schoen calls Chris Klieman “a player’s coach.” So does Skylar Thompson, James Gilbert, Jordan Mittie and just about everyone else on the Kansas State football roster.
It’s a phrase they have repeated for months going back to the moment he was hired. They genuinely enjoy playing for Klieman, and that has never been more obvious than it was during K-State’s 31-24 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
“That was a fun one,” Schoen, a senior receiver, said. “I love this team. That was awesome. To come in here, to their house and play a good football team, a SEC team and come away with a win was incredible, especially when you think about the way we played.
“We didn’t play a consistent game all the way through. We had a lot of big mistakes that let them back in the game. We should have won handily.”
Let’s examine some of those big mistakes for a moment. There were plenty of them.
- Midway through the second quarter, Jordon Brown fumbled a punt at midfield ... and Mississippi State responded with a 51-yard touchdown drive.
- A little later, Wayne Jones gave the Bulldogs new life with an unnecessary-roughness penalty ... and Mississippi State mounted a 66-yard touchdown drive.
- In the third quarter, A.J. Parker lost a fumble while trying to return an interception ... and Mississippi State answered with a 79-yard touchdown drive.
- After that, Seth Porter fumbled a punt ... and Mississippi State took advantage with a field goal.
Add it up, and the Bulldogs scored all 24 of their points immediately after the Wildcats gave them a gift. That’s not good.
Those are the type of plays that consumed former K-State coach Bill Snyder. His teams won by minimizing, if not outright eliminating, mistakes. He would have given K-State players an earful at halftime about leading 17-14 when the score should have been 17-0. He would have fumed about it afterward and all next week.
But that’s not Klieman’s style.
“I didn’t emphasize the negative,” Klieman said. “I didn’t want to.”
Instead, he told his players to embrace that adversity and keep fighting. If they could maintain the lead or stay close by the beginning of the fourth quarter, he thought they would win the game.
“We were all in there saying, ‘We are the better team,’” Mittie, a senior defensive tackle, said. “After that half we could all tell that we were. We just had to keep playing our game.”
Make no mistake, Klieman is no fan of mistakes. He would prefer to eliminate them as much as Snyder used to.
But he also realizes not all mistakes are created equal. Some are worth criticism. Most are forgivable.
“We can’t have what happened on the punt returns, but it happened,” Klieman said. “The kids are trying to make a play. ... That’s football. It’s part of the game. You want to try to minimize those things, but you can’t let them destroy you. If you have adversity and you tank, then it destroys you. Our guys better be galvanized when adversity strikes.”
That wasn’t a problem here. K-State players rallied around each other from the start. None of them panicked when they missed out on chances to take control of the game in the first half. And none of them worried when Mississippi State surged ahead 24-17 in the fourth quarter.
They put their mistakes behind them and found ways to overcome them.
“Our coaches did a great job, especially Coach Klieman,” linebacker Elijah Sullivan said. “He told us we were going to have adversity. It was going to come at some point in the game, and he talked about what we would do as a team when it comes and how we would respond. That’s where champions are made. He emphasized that all week.”
K-State rallied with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win the game. Not an easy task, considering this game was played in 90-degree weather with thousands of fans shaking cowbells after every play.
But the Wildcats never doubted themselves. Not even when they gift-wrapped several scoring opportunities for the opposition.
Gilbert said he never doubted the Wildcats were going to win. Denzel Goolsby said K-State players stayed loose the whole game. Schoen said no one was afraid to make mistakes, even after mistakes were made.
None of it got them down.
“One other thing that helps is how close this team is off the field,” Schoen said. “This group of guys, we all love each other. I feel like people say it all the time, but we really mean it. It’s so cool how excited guys get for each other after big plays. The passion we have for each other is awesome.”
Klieman deserves credit for that change within the K-State football program. It is already producing impressive results.
The Wildcats are off to their first 3-0 start in four years. The people who picked them to finish ninth in the Big 12 preseason poll look foolish.
Klieman has won 24 straight games going back to his time at North Dakota State. You don’t see that stat everyday.
His secret: “Great players.”
It’s not hard to see why the Wildcats are having fun playing, and winning, for their new coach.