Kansas State’s football players danced their way through Memorial Stadium on Saturday, waving at all the purple in the stands and bobbing their heads to the sound of “Wildcat Victory” as they celebrated the start of another year with the Governor’s Cup.
For the most part, the Sunflower Showdown ended the way it usually does when Bill Snyder is involved.
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K-State defeated Kansas 31-10, giving the Wildcats’ their fifth straight victory in the series and Snyder his 17th win over the Jayhawks in his last 18 meetings.
But it wasn’t quite the blowout of recent years. K-State had beaten Kansas by an average of 43.3 points over the past three seasons. On Saturday, K-State jumped to a 21-0 lead and Kansas kept things even the rest of the way.
So the scene in the locker room wasn’t exactly euphoric.
“I’m pleased for the right people, the players and our fans,” Snyder said. “It means an awful lot to each of them. I’m disappointed in how we played through the course of the ballgame.”
Still, it was an overly positive day for the Wildcats. Though their offense, outside of senior running back John Hubert, sagged at times, they closed out an up-and-down season with an important victory.
After a 2-4 start that included a loss to North Dakota State and three straight conference defeats, K-State, at 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12, clinched a winning season and improved its bowl outlook.
The Wildcats appear destined for the Holiday Bowl, which will be played against a Pac-12 opponent Dec. 30 in San Diego. The only other possibility is the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but that would only come into play if two Big 12 teams qualify for BCS bowls. Bowl selections will be announced Dec. 8.
Until then, junior defensive end Ryan Mueller, who made six tackles and a sack, tying K-State’s season record of 11 1/2 sacks, is trying to keep everything in perspective.
“I’m glad we came up with the victory today, even though it wasn’t as big a margin as years past,” Mueller said. “It’s a credit to Kansas’ program. We didn’t play our best game today and we know that. (Snyder) was like, ‘Here is the trophy, but you all know what I really want to say to you.’ We all smiled and now we will just try to move on.”
That much will be simple for Hubert and every member of K-State’s defense. Together, they did more than enough to beat the Jayhawks, who finished 3-9 and 1-8.
Hubert rushed for a career-high 220 yards and a touchdown in 30 carries, getting him to 968 yards on the year. A decent effort in the postseason will get him to his goal of 1,000.
“It was fun,” Hubert said of his game. “That was the first time I’ve touched the ball 30 times. I was loving it.”
Quite the change from games against Oklahoma and TCU, when he saw 15 combined touches.
“I told him how proud I was of him,” Snyder said. “He ran extremely hard. That is what has been important for him. He reads holes pretty good, but sometimes he gets caught dancing. Today he didn’t. He got his pads down and spun off of blocks and ran hard.”
Hubert also opened up K-State’s passing game, allowing quarterback Jake Waters to throw for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats took a 21-0 lead with touchdown catches from Zach Trujillo and Glenn Gronkowski and a touchdown run from Hubert. But special-teams miscues — including a fumbled kick return by Zach Nemecheck — allowed the Jayhawks to pull within 21-10 at halftime.
Kansas continued to threaten until the middle of the third quarter, when Jimmy Mundine bobbled a pass from Jake Heaps that would have put the Jayhawks across midfield with a shot to make it a one-score game and Dante Barnett came away with an interception.
Waters took a 15-yard run into the corner of the end zone on the ensuing possession and K-State went up 28-10. It was, effectively, a 14-point swing that put the game out of reach.
K-State could only manage a field goal from there, but its defense forced six turnovers. So it didn’t need any more offense.
“It felt like we had a turnover every possession,” said Barnett, who made two interceptions and recovered a fumble. “That’s what you want in this game.”
Senior linebacker Blake Slaughter was the best defensive player on this day, leading the game with 15 tackles. But everyone pitched in. Dylan Schellenberg made an interception and recovered a fumble, Dorrian Roberts had an interception and Mueller forced a fumble.
“That was huge,” Waters said. “It seemed like every time we sat down, we would look and we were getting the ball back. When the defense is doing that, it gives us such a great advantage. We didn’t capitalize on it today, but if we do that going into our bowl game we should be in good shape.”
It wasn’t a perfect afternoon for K-State. But it was good enough to set up a memorable ending in the postseason.
“The biggest thing we can take out of this season is that we never gave in,” junior receiver Tyler Lockett said. “We kept fighting back. Regardless of the close games we lost, we kept coming back fighting and we showed that again today.”