Mirroring a much-anticipated season turned exasperating for Kansas State, the Wildcats on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium bolted to a 7-0 lead on Alex Barnes’ 75-yard run on the second play from scrimmage and seized a 21-7 first-half advantage over No. 9 Oklahoma.
This was the team that’s been in there all this time, waiting to come to life.
Then they let the game drizzle through their hands in the second half, culminating in a 42-35 loss after the Sooners’ Rodney Anderson rambled 22 yards for a touchdown with 7 seconds left.
On one hand, any observer would have to feel better about this team than the week before, when K-State was muzzled 26-6 by Texas Christian.
Even if there was no glory to be had on Saturday, there was no shame in this, either.
On the other hand, where was this kind of competitiveness a week ago or at Vanderbilt (which has lost four in a row since beating the Wildcats)?
And it still was K-State’s fourth loss in five games, relegating it to 3-4 overall and 1-3 in a Big 12 race they’d been projected to be part of.
That’s why Snyder wasn’t offering any solace in this when he spoke to his team afterward.
A loss is a loss is a loss, after all.
“They’re all painful,” he said.
Even if apparent strides were made, any optimism that might come from that is obscured by the sheer result.
“I tell ’em I’m tired of having to come into the locker room under such circumstances. We’ve lost far too many games,” he said, later grudgingly adding that he took a sliver of encouragement in that “we played well enough at times to be a successful football team.”
Trouble is, that’s about the most he could say for a team that was downright dominant in the first half.
Only to be lethargic offensively in the second half and lit up repeatedly for big plays by Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw for 410 yards and rushed for 86 more in a performance that reiterated his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
“Have to play complete ballgames in this conference,” Snyder said. “One half won’t do it.”
Snyder suggested OU’s adjustments and K-State’s lack of execution combined in that, though it also appeared the Wildcats got a bit cautious and conservative a little too soon.
So plucky comeback to tie it with 2:25 left notwithstanding, here’s the looming question that comes out of this game:
How many more wins might the Wildcats be capable of this season with the likes of West Virginia and Oklahoma State — each ranked — and reinvented Iowa State waiting after K-State’s likely wins at Kansas and Texas Tech the next two weeks?
How they fare down the stretch will make for an interesting statement about the state of the union for the 78-year-old Snyder, whose Wildcats haven’t beaten a top 10 team since 2012.
Not that the results will make for imminent implications.
The man who took a distressed and dilapidated mom-and-pop store and willed it into a national brand — twice — has earned benefits of the doubt many times over.
A second losing season in three years would add to the grumbling but wouldn’t change that.
Plus, just when you count his teams out, he’s typically had a way of coaxing another surprise revival.
Still, this is approaching tricky territory for Snyder, who obviously can’t coach too many more years and dearly and deeply desires that his associate head coach and son, Sean, be his successor.
Not everyone agrees that’s the path forward.
But the father’s most compelling argument is one of continuity, an argument that would be most effective if the program is thriving.
If it’s not flourishing in the course of the next few years, if a disappointing season to date disintegrates into more ahead, the dynamics of the equation and his potential influence could change.
First things first, though:
As they demonstrated going toe-to-toe with Oklahoma, the Wildcats are capable of salvaging at least some of what’s gone awry.
They figure to get a boost against hapless, hopeless KU next week and at Tech (4-3, 1-3) a week later.
What will define the diluted remaining expectations, though, will be the final three games.
It’s impossible to know if that sequence will look like the first half on Saturday … when K-State amassed 313 yards and held OU to a touchdown before an ill-considered deep pass call and an interception led to a Sooners field goal that started a 21-0 OU counterattack.
Or the second half … when the Sooners plowed through K-State on both sides of the ball and were on the verge of breaking it open only for Oklahoma’s curious and unnecessary trick play to result in an intentional grounding penalty that led to an errant snap on a punt and allowed K-State to tie it 28-28.
Most likely, K-State will stand for something in between as a team with both potential and flaws tries not to fritter away the back end of the season as it did the front — a trend encapsulated in a loss Saturday that all at once was a stirring gut check and kick in the gut.