After the resounding success of the 1993 campaign, Kansas State wasn't going to sneak up on anyone in 1994. With the reigning conference newcomers of the year (Chad May and Percell Gaskins) back in the saddle, hopes were high and even then Bill Snyder's "get better" routine was already in play, even if not articulated quite so clearly as it has been the last couple of years.
Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats stormed through the opening non-conference portion of the schedule. They flattened Southwestern Louisiana, Rice, and Minnesota at home before heading to Lawrence with a "19" next to their name. In 1993, the Wildcats had only appeared on television once -- in the Copper Bowl. The 1994 Sunflower Showdown -- a Thursday night game -- would be the first of three straight national television appearances.
Despite the strides made in the program, the Wildcats' winless streak in Lawrence stretched back to 1969. They weren't having any of it this year. Despite only one rushing yard in the first half (that on a one-yard TD run by J.J. Smith), May had thrown for 271 yards and staked the 'Cats to a 14-0 lead. Rod Schiller added another one-yard plunge in the third, and the game was all but over by the time KU got untracked enough for two late touchdowns. May threw for 379 yards, targeting Smith for 82 and Kevin Lockett for 116, as the 'Cats held the ball for over 40 minutes on the night. The win moved the Wildcats to 4-0 and #16 in the coaches' poll... just in time for a visit from the unbeaten Huskers.
Defense was not the problem for Kansas State in the 1994 meeting with second-ranked Nebraska. The rain probably was; the offense certainly was. Due to blood clots, Tommy Frazier was knocked out for the season prior to this game. Nebraska was forced to start Matt Turman, who was replaced shortly before halftime by Brook Berringer. Turman led the Huskers to the opening score, a 2-yard Lawrence Phillips run in the first quarter. May hit Mitch Running for a 29-yard score early in the second quarter, and then the rain seriously began hampering both offenses. With eleven minutes to go, it was still 7-6 Nebraska when Jeff Makovica broke free for a 15-yard score. One stop later, and the Huskers added a field goal to escape Manhattan with a hard-fought 17-6 win.
Infamously, after the game Chad May spoke to the media and tagged himself with words that would stick to him the rest of his career. "I do't want to talk bad about them because they are a great football team, but they do play dirty. They tried to poke my eyeball out." The loss dropped the Wildcats to #19, and allowed Colorado to slip past Nebraska to #2... meaning for two straight weeks Kansas State would have to face the #2 team in the country.
Despite 356 yards passing, May was picked off twice and sacked four times, and Rashaan Salaam made a major statement in his eventual Heisman campaign with 202 yards rushing. The 'Cats struck first on a one-yard run by Smith, but Salaam scored from 53 yards out, then Kordell Stewart scored on an 8-yard run to take the lead for the Buffs. Smith scored on a 30-yard run to tie the game in the third quarter; Salaam responded with a score from 16 yards out. The Wildcats closed the third quarter with a three-yard Smith score, and it was 21-21 heading into the final fifteen minutes. But Stewart scored from 60 to regain the lead, and added a 7-yard dash to cap things off as Colorado prevailed 35-21. Three 'Cat receivers had 85 or more yards receiving: Lockett, Running, and Tyson Schweiger. It wasn't enough. The Wildcats barely hung on in the poll, falling to #23.
Oklahoma promptly kicked the 'Cats back up the ladder. May only had 115 yards passing, but five turnovers helped K-State build a 21-3 lead. The Sooners tried to come back, but could only outscore the Wildcats 17-16 the rest of the way and K-State walked out of Norman with a 37-20 win, their highest scoring output at Owen Field in 39 visits, and moved back up to #15. The same day, Nebraska knocked off Colorado to move to #1.
Winless Iowa State came calling the following week, and May threw four touchdown passes -- tying the school's single game record -- to set a new K-State career mark with 30, breaking Lynn Dickey's old standard. The Wildcats exploded to a 38-0 lead before May hit the sidelines; after that, Iowa State scored 20 unanswered points, but the game was never in doubt, and the 'Cats moved up to #11. In a controversial event, Cyclones coach Jim Walden got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for charging out onto the field in the first half to protest the lack of a penalty on Nyle Wiren, who basically bodyslammed ISU quarterback Todd Doxson.
Trailing by three with 39 seconds to go the next week, Larry Smith opted to go for the end zone and the win rather than an easy field goal to tie. Chris Canty knocked the ball down, and the Wildcats held on to beat Missouri 21-18. May had a horrid day, going 8-20 for 163 yards, but Smith had 138 on the ground. Nobody above K-State lost, and they held steady at 11th.
Eleven is as high as they got, as the season closed with two relatively easy games. Oklahoma State fell in Manhattan 23-6 after stopping the Cowboys on two straight plays from the two yard line to prevent OSU from taking a 14-0 lead. To close the regular season, the squad headed to Las Vegas and routed UNLV 42-3 behind 227 rushing yards in J.J. Smith's final regular-season game. May had what appeared to be yet another mediocre game, although strong winds and a game plan limiting passing attempts were the real cause. The signal-caller was 8-13 for 126 yards and a score. Despite the two wins, K-State still didn't move up in the poll, but they did earn the bid to the Big 8's #2 contractual destination: the Aloha Bowl. Nebraska earned the Orange Bowl bid and Colorado was selected for the Fiesta.
Again, the Wildcats were disappointed with their invitation, but there really was nothing to complain about. The two teams getting better bids were teams who had beaten K-State. Their opponent would be Boston College, 8-3 on the year.
Mike Mamula savaged May, sacking him four times (once for a safety); the Eagles recorded eight in all on the afternoon. Worse, the wildcats only managed 124 yards of offense on the day, and a brilliant effort by the Wildcat defense was squandered. K-State's only score happened when Joe Gordon blocked a Jeff Beckley punt and Chris Sublette fell on the ball in the end zone; it wasn't enough, as the 'Cats fell 12-7. It was a brutally disappointing end to the season. The loss dropped the Wildcats to #16 in the coaches' poll, #19 in the AP.
The only major conference honor garnered by the Wildcats was Chris Canty's selection as defensive newcomer of the year, the team's second straight nod in that category. May, Schweiger, Gordon, and Tim Colston were first-team all-conference. The squad had improved on the previous regular season; even though a tie with Colorado in 1993 became a loss in 1994, the previous year's loss to Iowa State shifted to a win this time out. However, the bowl loss meant a slight step back for the program as they finished 9-3. With Chad May graduating, conventional wisdom suggested that perhaps the Wildcats would regress in 1995. Snyder had other plans.