Everything that enabled Kansas State to contend for a conference championship and live inside the national polls this season was present Friday at the Alamo Bowl.
The Wildcats fought for tough yards, came up with momentum-changing stops and provided vintage highlights for a national television audience.
Problem is, they waited until the second half to do any of it.
The result was a 40-35 loss to UCLA that sent the vast majority of 60,517 fans at the Alamodome home disappointed.
A 31-6 halftime deficit, the largest such hole the No. 11 Wildcats, 9-4, have ever faced in a bowl game, ultimately proved too difficult to overcome, despite a furious second-half charge.
“The first half was awful all the way around. It was just a disaster,” said senior receiver Curry Sexton, after catching 10 passes for 104 yards. “It was kind of a nightmare. We came in at halftime and it felt like the game was already over and we had been beat. … But guys put it in their mind that one play at a time we were going to come back and win the game.
“Truthfully, we feel like we could have won that game and possibly should have won that game.”
The Wildcats could make that argument after the second half. They owned the third quarter, scoring 15 straight points, and outplayed the No. 14 Bruins, 10-3, in the fourth quarter, converting every fourth down they went for. And they pulled as close as 40-35 with 1 minute, 21 seconds remaining on a touchdown pass from Jake Waters to Tyler Lockett.
The crowd was behind them, and momentum was in their favor. As they lined up for an onside kick, an unforgettable comeback felt within reach.
“We had heard a TV announcer indicate in another ballgame that a football team had quit,” K-State football coach Bill Snyder said. “That’s the last thing in the world anybody wants to hear on national TV, I assure you that, and I reminded our youngsters of that, that we weren’t about to let somebody say that about us. And they didn’t. They didn’t. They made their best effort.”
Still, it wasn’t to be. UCLA recovered the onside kick and celebrated underneath falling confetti and balloons. Much like an earlier possession in which UCLA running back Paul Perkins broke free for a 67-yard touchdown run up the gut of K-State’s defense with the score 34-28, the Bruins clung to victory.
Just like that, K-State’s comeback was over.
The Wildcats will surely look back to their first-half woes more than that single defensive breakdown as the cause of this defeat.
Replays of the first half could serve as a how-to manual for future teams hoping to dominate, or avoid being dominated, in future postseason games.
K-State appeared beaten from the opening kickoff, failing to play with energy, toughness or poise.
The Wildcats committed costly penalties, including a Randall Evans hold that negated a Lockett touchdown on a punt return. K-State players were mistake-prone, including Lockett dropping a pass in the end zone. And its players were overmatched, with right tackle Matt Kleinsorge surrendering so many sacks that he was benched.
Waters was sacked seven times, causing him to hurry and lose two turnovers.
“We kind of got out of sorts,” Snyder said. “We’re thin in our offensive line, and guys have to play multiple positions, which they do, but we had some difficulty with our protection.”
UCLA, meanwhile, looked perfectly loose, gathering on the turf as a team to celebrate every score, showing the Bruins were ready to embrace every second of their time inside the Alamodome.
Quarterback Brett Hundley proved effective with his arm and his feet, throwing for 136 yards, rushing for 96 yards and accounting for three touchdowns. His 28-yard touchdown run on fourth and 3 in the third quarter felt like a backbreaker, putting UCLA on top 17-0 before K-State could respond.
And Perkins was a force, rushing for 194 yards and two scores.
K-State deserves credit for adjusting and fighting back from there, though. The Wildcats opened the second half with center B.J. Finney lining up at right tackle and their offense unwilling to give in.
Snyder said he referenced a string of other bowl comebacks in the locker room, assuring his team it could still win, while senior defensive end Ryan Mueller gave a stirring speech.
Then K-State took the field and looked like a new team after getting outplayed in every area in the first 30 minutes.
The Wildcats responded in vintage K-State fashion in the third quarter, with a touchdown drive that lasted 17 plays and 7:37 seconds, covering 75 yards. Waters, who threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns, found Lockett for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to make the score 31-14.
Then Mueller forced a fumble almost immediately on UCLA’s next drive and Dakorey Johnson recovered to give K-State a real shot to get back in the game, scoring on a 2-yard run from DeMarcus Robinson with 3:25 to go in the third quarter.
UCLA seized momentum back with a field goal, but K-State twice made it a one-score game.
Had some of that production come in the first half as well as the second, it might have been enough for K-State to win.
“We had a chance to come back,” Lockett said. “We made a great rally. Everybody saw it. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short.”