Kansas State had risen to relevance the previous two seasons on the back of an explosive offense. In 1995, the tables would turn as the Big Eight played its final season as an eight-team club. Bill Snyder had begun 1994 with a career record of 27-28-1, the 9-3 season boosting him to 36-31-1. That was an important figure entering 1995, as the record for coaching wins at K-State was 39, held by Mike Ahearn.
Replacing Chad May at quarterback was Matt Miller, a transfer from Texas A&M who'd served as May's backup in limited duty in 1994. Miller, the California high school athlete of the year in 1990, had supplanted Brian Kavanaugh (who had backed May up in 1993) as the two; Kavanaugh would see significant action in 1995, however, as Miller turned out to be very good but also somewhat fragile. Joining the two in the backfield was the two-headed sophomore tandem of Eric Hickson and Mike Lawrence. Both backs had seen limited action the previous year behind J.J. Smith. The receiving corps remained intact, with junior Kevin Lockett and seniors Mitch Running and Tyson Schwieger, the latter being a returning all-Big Eight selection. There would be a major change affecting the entire offense this year, however, as Del Miller had departed to take over the head coaching position at Southwest Missouri State. He was replaced by Dana Dimel, who'd been coaching the running backs.
Defensively, the 'Cats were stacked. They sported returning all-conference selections in DT Tim Colston and DB Joe Gordon, as well as the prior year's defensive newcomer of the year, Chris Canty. Percell Gaskins was still anchoring the linebacking corps, and guys like Travis Ochs, Nyle Wiren, Mario Smith, and Chuck Marlowe bolstered a fearsome unit. Also returning was sophomore kicker Martin Gramatica, who had been almost automatic on extra points in 1994, but a little shaky on field goals.
Hickson almost had his college career take a sudden Bryce Brown turn when he fumbled on his second carry of the game in the season opener against Temple. The fumble was followed on the very next play by a 58-yard touchdown pass from Henry Burris to Troy Kersey, and Temple led 7-0. But Snyder was more patient with Hickson, who racked up 107 yards and a score, while Lawrence had 95 yards on the ground. Miller was efficient, though not spectacular, completing 11 of 17 passes for 143 yards and two scores, and the Wildcats responded to that Temple touchdown with 34 unanswered points to bury the Owls. Unranked in the pre-season poll, the 'Cats found themselves at #21 on Sunday.
Traveling to Cincinnati, the 'Cats found themselves in a world of trouble. The Bearcats leapt to a 14-0 lead after only six minutes, and it held through halftime. K-State fought back in the second half, though, and claimed the lead with just four and a half minutes remaining when Miller found Lockett for a 28-yard scoring strike. Miller hit Running to complete the two point conversion, and the 'Cats led by three. But then Cincinnati struck back with only 44 seconds to go on a touchdown of their own, setting up the finale. Miller led the 'Cats downfield quickly, and reached the Bearcat 22 with only three seconds to go. As time expired, Miller lofted a pass into the end zone... and Lockett came down with it. It was a miracle finish, but Miller wasn't surprised: "I had the weirdest feeling the entire game, I thought we were going to win."
Snyder wasn't thrilled, as you'd expect. "Miller played a terrible game. I had the chance to go with Brian in the second half, but I wanted to give this young man a chance to gain some confidence." And it was a terrible game, at least for the first 40 minutes or so. Miller finished 18-32 for 231 yards with four interceptions, and K-State moved up to #19 in the coaches' poll.
Three straight home games followed, and to this day no Wildcat defense has ever put together 180 minutes to compare. Akron came to town and got mauled. Miller threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter, and was 12-15 for 141 before leaving the game with a bruised shoulder. He was cleared to return, but Snyder saw no point in it; Kavanaugh went 8-15 for 125 and two scores -- one passing, one on the ground -- the rest of the way. Hickson scored twice and Lawrence once, while Lockett and Running each had two TD receptions. Akron three four interceptions, two to Canty (one of which he housed), and the scoring concluded when Gordon sacked the Akron punter in the end zone. The 'Cats won 67-0 and moved up another three spots in the poll.
Northern Illinois was the next victim, but at first it looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Running scored on a 10-yard pass from Miller early, but the Wildcats only led 7-0 at halftime. The comedy of errors included the unthinkable: Kevin Lockett dropped a pass in the end zone. The locker room was intense. "It got real serious," Lawrence offered. But Wiren sacked Aaron Gilbert in the end zone to start the second half, and then the 'Cats went to town. By the end of the third quarter it was 30-0, and K-State tacked on two more fourth-quarter scores with the second string as Kavanaugh was perfect on all five of his pass attempts. Another three-spot climb in the polls left the 4-0 Wildcats at #13.
Missouri had caused one of 1994's biggest scares. When they came to Manhattan this time, they were held to a mere 118 yards by a fired-up defense led by Mario Smith, who seemed intent on causing everyone grievous bodily harm. The 'Cats themselves didn't score until midway through the second quarter, and only led 7-0 at the half. But Travis Ochs picked off Brandon Corso early in the third, and four plays later the lead doubled. By the end of the quarter it was 20-0. Gramatica added a field goal, and with 1:46 to go Miller finally threw a touchdown pass to Brian Lojka; the three previous trips to the end zone had all been on the ground.
Nobody had scored on Kansas State in over 180 minutes, and the Wildcats found themselves in a wholly unfamiliar place the following afternoon: they were ranked eighth in both polls. Interestingly, the same weekend Kansas upset Colorado and found themselves ranked 9th in the coaches' poll and 10th in the AP; Colorado was in the same boat, only reversed. Nebraska was 2nd and Oklahoma 13th/12th: five of the eight teams in the conference were in the top half of the polls.
Miller went 17-21 for 261 yards and two scores the following weekend in Stillwater, but still had to hook up with Lojka with under six minutes to go for the go-ahead score. The problem: Oklahoma State's David Thompson, who gashed the KSU defense for 181 yards and put the Cowboys in front 17-14 early in the fourth. The narrow escape left K-State at 6-0 for the first time since the Taft administration and also left them at #8 in the polls; they were leapfrogged by Kansas after #6 Auburn lost. Before anyone could get excited about the prospect of a #7 Kansas/#8 Kansas State showdown, however, there was the matter of a trip to Lincoln.
Neither team scored on their first possession. Both teams scored on their second. After that, the Huskers blasted K-State, scoring 35 straight points to bury the 'Cats. The Blackshirts punished Miller and held the Wildcats to -19 yards rushing. Tommie Frazier threw four touchdown passes and didn't even run for one. Nebraska scored on a punt return, on a fumble in the end zone, on a pick-six... the game was just an abject disaster. The only bright spot was that Kavanaugh went 12-22 for 136 yards and two touchdowns in relief... but that was against the Nebraska twos. The 'Cats fell to 14th, and were widely dismissed as a fraudulent contender.
Snyder felt that the disaster was his fault and that he'd allowed the team to get too emotionally invested in the game. "Our players were emotionally charged to play this ball game and, I think, too emotionally charged and that's my fault," Snyder said. "I think I've put them in a position where maybe they're destined to fail."
Today, we have to look back on this defeat as one of the key, if not the key, reasons why Bill Snyder tries to get his players to treat any one game like any other, even as the fanbase wishes he'd back away from that. Psychologically, his rationale is obvious in retrospect, but one must question whether he reached the appropriate conclusion. After all, Nebraska may have trucked the Wildcats that afternoon simply because they were legitimately that much better.
Returning home, the Wildcats were, to put it bluntly, pissed off. They'd just been absolutely humilated on national television, and they were now deemed the second-best school in their own state. Kansas had moved up to #6, and they were coming to town for the most important football game ever played between the two schools. Kansas was averaging 232 yards rushing coming into the contest. The Wildcats held the Jayhawks to 155 yards... total. Hickson and Lawrence both rushed for over 100 yards, and Miller himself added 78. K-State only passed for 119 yards on the day because they simply didn't need to throw the ball after two first quarter TD receptions by Lockett, though Running also caught one from Kavanaugh in the fourth. The 'Cats rolled to a 41-7 win, their biggest victory over their arch-rivals since 1955 and their first win over a top ten team since 1970. (It counts as a top-ten win no matter how you slice it, too, as the Jayhawks finished the season in the top ten.) With the win, K-State moved back into the top ten themselves, at #9 in the AP and #8 in the coaches'.
Oklahoma then came to town, and the Wildcats did everything imaginable to ensure Howard Schnellenberger's stay in Norman would end quickly. A blocked punt returned for a score on Oklahoma's first possession set the tone as the 'Cats rolled to a 49-10 win. It was K-State's biggest win over the Sooners ever, the worst defeat for Oklahoma since 1945, and marked the first time the Wildcats had defeated the Sooners three years in a row since the 1920s. Miller was 20-25 for 273, throwing three touchdown passes and running for two; he broke Chad May's single-season TD pass record with his 19th. Lockett had 117 yards receiving with a score, extending his school record to 12 on the season. Canty had two interceptions. In contrast to the previous week, the 'Cats only had 80 rushing yards... because they didn't need to run. Simply put, it was a demolition. Notably, Miller played the entire game, indicating a certain philosophy on Snyder's part: Nebraska and Oklahoma would receive no quarter. The win pushed the Wildcats to #7 in both polls.
Many of you won't believe this, as used to nightmare games in Ames as you are, but the next week the 'Cats recorded their third straight blowout. In a zero degree wind chill, Miller went 14-17 for 209 and three scores, giving him 22 on the season -- a new Big Eight record. He also ran for a pair, accounting for five scores for the second week in a row. Hickson ran for 144 and Running had 121 yards receiving. Iowa State's Troy Davis did manage to run for 183 yards on the Wildcat defense, but they kept him from getting any of the important ones and held the Cyclones to 72 passing yards. The Wildcats were now 9-1, though the win didn't help them in the polls.
Manhattan prepared for a showdown the next weekend, as the seventh-ranked 'Cats hosted #9 Colorado with the rewards fairly clear: the winner was going to the Cotton Bowl, while the loser would have to jockey with Kansas for a bid to the Holiday or Aloha Bowls. (The Big 12 bowl assignments actually took effect this year, even though the league wouldn't begin play until 1996. This was beneficial to the league in one respect: the soon-to-be Big 12 was guaranteed two Bowl Alliance bids.)
Gramatica put the 'Cats on top early with a 30-yarder, but Colorado answered on a ridiculous play when John Hessler targeted tight end Matt Lepsis. The ball bounced off his hands, but right into the arms of Herschell Troutman, who dashed into the end zone to put the Buffs in front, and it stayed that way into the third quarter. Canty blocked a punt and scooped it up for a touchdown, but then two Neil Voskeritchian field goals gave the Buffs a 13-10 lead in the fourth. Miller then led a 72-yard drive which ended with a Hickson plunge with 2:24 to go, and not only did the Wildcats have the lead, but Colorado was going to have to get into the end zone to win the game.
Hessler only needed 80 seconds to go 80 yards, finding James Kidd for a 20-yard score with 1:04 to go. Nineteen seconds later, it was all over as the 'Cats fumbled in their own end zone, and Kerry Hicks recovered to give Colorado a 27-17 win.
Although everyone was disappointed at blowing the chance to go to the Cotton Bowl, nobody was bitter about the Cotton's decision to take Colorado. Indeed, there would be no disappointment over the eventual bowl assignment this year. The 'Cats finished tied for second with Colorado and Kansas, but in the end it was the Jayhawks who drew the short straw. K-State, now ranked tenth, was on their way to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl to face WAC co-champions Colorado State, who'd gone 8-3 and emerged from a four-way tie with BYU, Utah, and Air Force.
Honors aplenty showered down on the Wildcats in the weeks leading to the bowl game. Canty was named a consensus first-team All-American, while Colston received a second-team nod and was named the Big Eight's Defensive Player of the Year. Lockett, Colston, Gaskins, Canty, and Gordon all received first-team all-conference honors.
Miller's career ended in horrifying fashion early in the second quarter with the game tied at seven. Miller was sacked by Nate Kvamme and there was helmet contact; the quarterback laid motionless on the turf for over seven minutes before being wheeled off on a stretcher. Thankfully, the injury turned out to be merely a neck sprain and Miller was released from a local hospital the next morning. The game had to go on, though, and Brian Kavanaugh stepped into the breach.
Smith picked off Moses Moreno's first pass attempt on the ensuing Ram drive, and Lawrence scored two plays later. The Cats forced a punt on the next drive; Gordon Brown blocked it, and after two plays Dederick Kelly scored from the 18 on a draw play. Kavanaugh then tossed his first touchdown pass of the night, a 12-yarder to Lojka, and the 'Cats took a 26-7 lead into the locker room.
After the break, history repeated itself but in the Wildcats' favor this time. Just as had happened to them in the Colorado game, a pass from Kavanaugh to Lojka was deflected but settled in Schwieger's hands for an 18-yard touchdown completion. The teams then went into see-saw mode for a time, trading two touchdowns apiece; Lawrence scored again from the five, and Kavanaugh hit his third different receiver for a score on a four-yard toss to Lockett. By that point, it was 47-21 heading into the fourth, and the game was all but over. Kavanaugh added a 33-yard touchdown strike to Running for his fourth touchdown pass of the night, tying both a KSU and a Holiday Bowl record; he'd connected with all four of his primary receivers for scores on the night and deservedly won the game's offensive MVP honors; he would later be inducted into the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame, as would Snyder. The defensive award went to Mario Smith.
Kavanaugh was far from the only star on the evening. Hickson ran for 103 yards, while Running hauled in six passes for 126 as the Wildcats racked up 536 yards of offense -- 324 in the air and 212 on the ground, a brutally balanced attack. The defense destroyed Moreno, who was picked off twice by Smith and only managed a 5-24 night with 91 yards passing. Damon Washington did gain 101 yards on the ground for the Rams, and that stood out as the only real bright spot on the night for the WAC champions.
K-State earned its first 10-win season with the victory. They finished 6th in the coaches' poll, 7th in the AP; the Big Eight gave way to the Big 12 on a high note, as four Big Eight teams finished in the top 10. Kansas was 10th in the coaches, 9th in the AP after trouncing UCLA in the Aloha Bowl, while Colorado checked in at 4th and 5th after their Cotton Bowl rout over Oregon. And, of course, Nebraska won the national championship with their humilating destruction of Florida -- a win which, in retrospect, made K-State's loss to the Huskers look pretty good. (One interesting thing totally unrelated to the 'Cats or the conference you may not have known or may have forgotten if you did: Northwestern went into the Rose Bowl ranked #3 before losing to USC.)
Exactly six years previously, the Wildcats were sitting at home watching bowl games on television, having gone 7-57-2 over the six years prior. They were now at the end of a six-year run which saw them post a record of 45-23-1... but they were just getting started.