Problems seemed to beset the Wildcat program off the field as 1996 dawned. The entire future of the program could have been changed forever had it not been for Bill Snyder's decision on New Year's Day to remove himself from consideration for the vacant position at UCLA.
Snyder's flirtation was the only documented instance of him seriously considering a move from Manhattan, although there had been rumors the previous year that LSU was pursuing him. Snyder uncategorically denied that he'd met with the Tigers, but the UCLA situation was different. Luckily for the 'Cats, Snyder decided to stick around. A few weeks later, Nyle Wiren was convicted on a charge of criminal property damage and criminal trespassing; he copped a plea and received a year of probation.
Just one month later, Florida hired away Bob Stoops to take over as their defensive coordinator, leaving his brother Mike and Jim Leavitt to share the duties in Manhattan. Florida, reeling from the destruction visited upon them by Nebraska the previous year, was impressed with the elder Stoops' work leading the nation's #1 defense from 1995.
Most of the key components from the previous year returned, with Matt Miller and Tyson Schwieger being the most important exceptions. Unfortunately, Martin Gramatica was lost for the year, leaving Jamie Rheem to handle the kicking duties, and Eric Hickson went down a week before the season opener when he suffered a knee injury in camp. That left Mike Lawrence as the feature back, with Marlon Charles backing him up. The ability of the Wildcats to continue competing in a conference which had just added two heavyweights from Texas, but the 'Cats were ranked #21 in the pre-season coaches' poll. K-State was also given the honor of hosting the very first Big 12 conference game as they hosted Texas Tech to open the season on August 31.
Tech stole the honor of scoring the first points in Big 12 play when Tony Rogers kicked a 53-yard field goal thirteen minutes into the game. He'd try five kicks on the afternoon, but this was the only one he would make; that failure would be the ultimate key to the game. But K-State got the new conference's first touchdown five minutes later when Brian Kavanaugh snuck in from the one. Ten minutes later, Jimmy Dean hauled in a 17-yard pass from Kavanaugh to put the 'Cats up 14-7. K-State appeared to have iced the game two minutes into the fourth quarter when Mario Smith recovered a Zebbie Lethbridge fumble in the end zone, but Tech fought back.
Lethbridge found Sammy Morris from 14, and backup kicker Jaret Greaser hit from 53 with 147 seconds left after a Kavanaugh fumble. Trailing by a score, Tech threatened again, and on fourth and 17 from the Wildcat 21 with 44 seconds to go, Lethbridge connected with Donnie Hart for what would have been a first down at the three. Mario Smith hit Hart as he caught the ball, and by now K-State fans were familiar with the usual result of the phrase "Mario Smith hit". The ball came loose and bounced harmlessly off the turf, and Hart hit the ground and stayed there awhile. Despite 115 rushing yards from Byron Hanspard and a lukewarm performance by the entire K-State offense, the 'Cats had escaped, the first team to record a win in the new conference.
Three weeks of routs followed, which pushed the 'Cats to #16 in the coaches' poll. Kavanaugh shook off a mediocre performance against Tech by going 19-22 with three TD passes, and Marlon Charles ran for 195 as the Wildcats blasted Indiana State 59-3. Charles cracked 100 again the next week as K-State "avenged" their narrow escape in Cincinnati the previous year by routing the Bearcats 35-0. Mario Smith got himself ejected just before halftime when James Scott took a swing at him (for which he was flagged) and Smith retaliated with a punch. The string ended with a 34-7 win over Rice in Houston, in which Kavanaugh had four touchdown passes, three to Dean, on a 20-28 day. It was only 14-7 midway through the third before the 'Cats reeled off three unanswered scores.
K-State had two weeks to prepare for ABC's second trip of the year to Manhattan; the Nebraska game was now becoming an annual fixture as a national broadcast. It didn't help, as once again the 'Cats just couldn't get over the hump. Nebraska held the Wildcats to literally zero offense in the first half while DeAngelo Evans, a Wichitan that the Huskers stole right out of K-State's backyard, ran wild for 168 yards and two scores. As an illustration, K-State's leading rusher on the day was backup QB Jonathan Beasley, who picked up 40 yards mopping up. Kavanaugh had gone 5-19 for 34 yards with two picks; given all of that, the 39-3 loss was the natural result.
Heading off for a two-game road trip, the Wildcats first stopped in Columbia to lay a beatdown on the Tigers. After Mizzou scored on the opening drive, Chris Canty returned the kickoff 44 yards to set up a 7-yard Lawrence score; just a few minutes later Canty scored on a 58-yard punt return to put the 'Cats on top for good. Lawrence finished with 168 yards and two scores, and Smith added a 100-yard pick-six midway through the fourth to support a decent, if unspectacular, effort by Kavanaugh in a 35-10 win. The following week, five turnovers including a fumble recovery and an interception by Mario Smith, helped the Wildcats survive a trip to Kyle Field in a 23-20 win over Texas A&M. The key sequence, though, was at the end of the first half. Canty intercepted a pass in his own end zone, tried to run it out, and fumbled at the one. A&M recovered, but the defense stopped Brandon Stewart at the one-foot line as the gun sounded. The game was still in the balance when Mark Simoneau recovered a Dante Hall fumble at the Wildcat 17 with under a minute to go.
Oklahoma came to down the next week, and K-State went to work immediately, scoring 21 points in the first quarter. By the end of the third, four Kavanaugh TD passes had staked the 'Cats had a 42-14 lead, but the Sooners charged back on two TD passes from Eric Moore to Michael McDaniel and a third to Mo Little. Suddenly the visitors were within a touchdown, and they got the ball back again. With 1:35 to go, Canty picked off Moore to save the win. It was Kavanaugh's best performance of the year, going 27-38 for 349. And senior Kevin Lockett, who Oklahoma had deemed to be too small to play for them, finished off his career against the Sooners having never lost to them. The 'Cats moved to #13 in the poll, their highest position of the year.
Another bye week preceded a visit to Lawrence. Kavanaugh again threw four TD passes, and the Wildcats shook off a mere 14-12 halftime lead to roll 38-12. Lawrence ran for 159, and Lockett accounted for 168 of Kavanaugh's 212 passing yards, scoring twice -- and tallied an interception as the deep man on a field goal attempt which turned out to be a fake. The 'Cats moved into the top ten at #9, setting up a tilt with #6 Colorado in Boulder. It was snowy, the wind chill was below zero, and K-State just couldn't get untracked. For the first time since Colorado did it to them in Manhattan in 1991, the Wildcats got shut out, losing 12-0. It was a horrible game to watch from any perspective, as the final 39 minutes of the game were scoreless, and nobody was even really threatening. The loss dropped K-State to #14, removed them from any consideration for the Sugar or Orange Bowls, and set up a winner-take all contest between Nebraska and Colorado for the Big 12 North title. But the news wasn't entirely bad: Cotton Bowl officials expressed a strong desire to have the 'Cats visit Dallas. In fact, the Cotton officials were actually rooting for Colorado to win this game; a K-State win would have meant a return visit to Dallas for the Buffaloes, a situation the Cotton wished to avoid.
Heisman hopeful Troy Davis torched the Wildcats for 225 yards in the regular season finale, becoming the first player in Division I history to rush for 2000 yards two years in a row. But he was outdone. Mike Lawrence led the cats with a team-record 252-yard day, scoring three times, as the Wildcats rolled to a 35-20 win. The Wildcats were forced into a long waiting game now, as it would be two weeks before they discovered their bowl destination. The Cotton was not a sure thing, as Nebraska -- who'd taken care of Colorado -- still needed to win the Big 12 to effectively ensure that bid.
Shockingly, that didn't happen. Texas upset the Huskers in the Big 12 title game, earning a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats had to wait for the Bowl Alliance selections to finalize; if Nebraska failed to woo the Orange Bowl, K-State might have had to settle for a return trip to San Diego -- or worse. But the Orange did in fact take the Huskers, and the Wildcats had their ticket punched for their first New Year's Day bowl bid ever. They were set to face a very angry opponent: fifth-ranked BYU, bypassed for the Bowl Alliance in favor of #6 Nebraska and #7 Penn State. Interestingly, historical perspective can mark this event as the trigger for a lot of things which later occurred. A BYU trip to the Orange or Fiesta in 1996/7 would have put an entirely different coat of paint on what transpired for the WAC (or at least for the MWC) going forward.
Potential problems arose, even as the Wildcats were busy selling a ridiculous 45,000-plus tickets to the Cotton Bowl -- absolutely shattering the previous record for single-team ticket sales to the bowl game previously held by Texas Tech at 28,000. "We could go through next season and not win a single game, and somebody will invite us to a bowl," joked Nyle Wiren, as Snyder acknowledged that it may as well be a home game for the 'Cats. But offensive coordinator Dana Dimel suddenly left to take the head coaching job at Wyoming, and then Chris Canty was arrested for DUI in early December, casting doubt on his presence for the festivities. His personal response was to withdraw his name from consideration for the Thorpe, Nagurski, and Maxwell Defensive awards. The junior was named a first-team All-American two days after his arrest, and was already awarded the Touchdown Club of Columbus's Jack Tatum award for best defensive back. Other Wildcats honored included Mark Simoneau as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, and first-team All-Big 12 acknowledgements went to Lockett, Wiren, Canty, and Smith.
January 1, those 45,000 purple-clad fans settled in for the Cotton Bowl. Things started badly. Kavanaugh was sacked for a safety with under four minutes to go in the first quarter, and BYU added a field goal after the free kick to go up 5-0. Just as the half was ending, Kavanaugh found Andre Anderson for a 41-yard score, and Lawrence ran in the conversion to make it 8-5. Six minutes into the third quarter, Kavanaugh and Lockett hooked up for a 72-yard score, and the 'Cats had a 10-point lead.
Suddenly the wheels fell off. Canty left the game four minutes into the final period suffering from cramps caused by dehydration; he'd never play another down for the 'Cats, declaring early for the draft a few days later. Joe Gordon, the two-time all-Big Eight corner, moved over to take his place, while Demetric Denmark entered the game. Steve Sarkisian immediately attacked Denmark, lofting a 32-yard score to James Dye to cut the lead to a field goal. Then Gordon had to leave the game due to cramps as well, and freshman Lamar Chapman came in. Again, Sarkisian attacked the newcomer, and K.O. Keaialuhi got past Chapman for a 28-yard score.
Kavanaugh had one last drive left in him. The 'Cats converted two fourth downs before Kavanaugh found Lockett in the end zone... but was in mid-air when he caught the ball and was hauled out of bounds by the BYU defender. After a completion to Lockett got the 'Cats to the 12, Kavanaugh went to Jimmy Dean, but Omarr Morgan picked off the pass with 55 seconds left, and the Cougars won their then-NCAA record 14th game of the season.
Heartbreak was the only word, and to this day K-State fans get a sour expression when they hear the words "Chris Canty" despite all he did for the program in his three years. The Wildcats had to settle for a 9-3 mark a year after their first 10-win season. They finished the year ranked #17 in both polls. It was a step down, a failure of Bill Snyder's "get better" philosophy. They'd get right back to work on righting the ship the following year.