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Derek Smith | November 22, 2013

Ambushed

The Night the Greatest Turnaround Trumped the Greatest Team

Ten years ago, Ted Sims intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown. When he crossed the goal line, he didn't stop running. He ran across the back of the end zone. He ran to the other side of the field. Then - with teammate Josh Buhl running alongside - he ran past the opposing team's bench.

He didn't know it was so obvious on TV.

Sims had just put a dagger into the heart of a team considered one of the greatest in the history of college football. He won't say he was trying to twist it, but it doesn't take away from the magic of the moment.

"That was one of those things that you'll never forget," he says. "The stars were aligned that night, that's for sure."

★ ★ ★

"Ad astra per aspera." The state motto of Kansas, "To the stars through difficulties," directly applies to what Bill Snyder did in Manhattan from 1989 through 2000 as he steadily overcame obstacles in building a program that came within a few minutes of playing for a national title in 1998 and churned out some of the largest yearly NFL draft classes in college history.

The state motto of Kansas, "To the stars through difficulties," directly applies to what Bill Snyder did in Manhattan from 1989 to 2000

In 2001, however, the stars fell. After eight straight seasons with at least nine wins, the Wildcats finished 6-6 and lost to Syracuse in the Insight Bowl. Many thought Snyder - the architect of perhaps the greatest turnaround in college football history - had lost a step.

The next year, Snyder proved them wrong. He led the Wildcats to their fifth 11-win season in six years. Their only two losses were by a combined seven points to Big 12 championship-game participants Colorado and Texas. They outscored their remaining opponents 537-102.

Going in to 2003, the media picked the Wildcats to win the Big 12 North division and finish second in the Big 12. They had done it twice before, with heartbreaking losses in the championship game. Experts expected no difference this year. Picked to win the Big 12 South - and the conference - were the Oklahoma Sooners.

★ ★ ★

Bob Stoops followed Bill Snyder from the University of Iowa to Manhattan, Kan., in 1989. While there, Stoops helped build what became one of the most aggressive and intimidating defensive units in college football. Calling themselves the "Lynch Mob," the Stoops-led Kansas State defense ranked first in the nation in yards allowed per game and second in scoring in 1995. In 1996, Stoops left to join Steve Spurrier's staff at the University of Florida.

Mike Stoops - who joined his brother, Bob, as an assistant at K-State in 1991 - remained on Snyder's staff until 1999. When Bob was called upon to replace John Blake at Oklahoma, he convinced his brother - along with Snyder assistants Brent Venables and Mark Mangino - to join him. More than a third of the staff that led the Wildcats to within a game of a national championship appearance in 1998 was now headed to Norman, Okla.

Two years later, in 2000, Stoops and the Sooners defeated Snyder's Wildcats twice on the way to Oklahoma's first national championship in 15 years. In 2002, they won their second Big 12 title in three years and defeated the Washington State Cougars in the Rose Bowl.

A historical powerhouse, Oklahoma football had trended steadily downward since the departure of Barry Switzer in 1988. Though the turnaround wasn't as dramatic as what Snyder had accomplished in Manhattan, Bob Stoops had returned the Sooners to glory.

★ ★ ★

Glory is measured in many ways. In college football's national consciousness, glory is measured in championships. Though he had done a masterful job of turning what was once the worst program in college football history into a national power, a championship of any kind had eluded Bill Snyder in his 14 years at K-State.

With 12 returning starters in 2003, including quarterback Ell Roberson and running back Darren Sproles, along with three offensive linemen on their way to long NFL careers, the Wildcats looked capable of changing that. With eight of their 13 games scheduled in Manhattan and only one opponent - Texas - ranked ahead of them in the preseason AP poll, things were set up nicely.

(Getty Images)

The season opened at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City with the Black Coaches Association Classic against the California Golden Bears. The Wildcat defense struggled a bit as coordinators Bret Bielema and Bob Elliot continued the rebuilding project they'd begun the year before. The Wildcat offense more than made up for the defensive rust, as Roberson and Sproles combined for 525 yards and K-State came out on top, 42-28.

The 'Cats didn't slow down in their home opener the following week, crushing the Troy Trojans, 41-5. McNeese State came to Manhattan next, and the early season blowouts continued. The Wildcats coasted to a 55-14 victory, but Roberson left in the second quarter with an injury to his hand.

Without Roberson, Snyder called on backup quarterback Jeff Schwinn to lead the offense. Schwinn threw for 228 yards and two interceptions against Massachusetts in game four, but Sproles carried the weight, rushing for 152 yards and three scores on the way to a 38-7 victory.

Averaging almost 120 yards a game through the first four contests, Snyder was counting on Sproles when he made the decision to start Schwinn against Marshall, in place of the still-ailing Roberson. The Thundering Herd were ready. Marshall held Sproles to only 77 yards on 14 carries and the Wildcats turned the ball over four times, including an 89-yard touchdown by Marshall defensive end Jonathan Goddard after grabbing a pitch from Schwinn.

The Herd scored with less than four minutes left to take a 27-20 lead. They had a chance to seal it with a minute and a half left, but kicker Nick Kelly missed a 45-yard field goal to give K-State the ball at its own 28-yard line. Schwinn led the offense 69 yards to the Marshall three-yard line, but that's as far as it went. After Sproles was stuffed for no gain, a false start penalty pushed the offense back to the eight.

"We got penalized right at the very end which, in all reality, cost us the ball game," Snyder says about the loss. "We were a reasonably well-disciplined football team so that was a bit of a surprise."

Schwinn's last effort, a pass over the middle to Davin Dennis, fell incomplete on fourth down. It was Marshall's first ever win over a ranked opponent.

"Going into that season, we'd all aspired to play for a national championship," says former linebacker Josh Buhl. "Had we not had some injuries, we could have done that."

The Marshall loss was the first of three in a row, as the Wildcats opened conference play on the road at Texas and Oklahoma State.

"What was amazing when you go back and look at those games, it's not like we got blown out," former defensive end Andrew Shull says. "You take the Texas game. If they would have had instant replay, we would've won because Vince Young didn't stick the ball out, and the Oklahoma State game we lost by four points. So, they were close. It was definitely a surprise."

K-State lost the three games by a combined 15 points. To some, close losses hurt more than blowouts. Snyder isn't sure that's the case.

"If it's not close at all, you probably look at it as though there was nothing we could have done," Snyder says. "I have a hard time investing in that philosophy, but that's the way some people view it. If it's closer, you're looking with a fine tooth comb at [a number of plays] that could have turned the game."

"It was almost like our character was being challenged. That's how I felt. I felt like my character was being challenged and who I was as person, as a football player, as a man."

Seven games into a season K-State entered with a No. 6 national ranking, the Wildcats were 4-3. It was gut-check time in Manhattan.

"We could go two ways," Shull says. "We could either keep losing and have it end up like that 2001 season, where we lost a ton of games, or we're a better football team than this."

"It was almost like our character was being challenged. That's how I felt. I felt like my character was being challenged and who I was as person, as a football player, as a man."

"Those next couple weeks, it was a dogfight."

★ ★ ★

Simply looking at recruiting numbers, one might consider Kansas State one of the smaller "dogs" among BCS conference programs. But throughout Bill Snyder's tenure, the fight inside the players has far exceeded expectations.

In the weeks following the Oklahoma State loss, the 'Cats proved there was still plenty of fight left. They rattled off six straight wins, all by double digit margins. A 38-9 victory over Nebraska - K-State's first victory in Lincoln since 1968 - was especially satisfying.

"My sophomore year, I remember telling Terry Pierce and Josh Buhl and [Thomas] Houchin and Bryan Hickman, 'When we're up here our senior year, I guarantee we'll win.'" says Shull. "We kind of got into a fight in the coin toss before the game because we were just fired up. We wanted to take them down from the moment we stepped onto the field."

"I think that game was a pivotal moment in K-State history and in our college careers for sure," says Buhl of the victory. "I think that was for us to show that we had a chance to go ahead and win the Big 12 Championship."

After a victory over Missouri the following week, the Wildcats indeed had that chance. They were slated to face the top-ranked Sooners in the Big 12 Championship game.

And the media was ready.

★ ★ ★

By late November, the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners had already assumed almost legendary status in the college football world. On November 30, Berry Tramel published a column in the Daily Oklahoman arguing where this team would fit in the pantheon of great Oklahoma teams. The headline read as follows:

"Win out, and the 2003 Sooners rank as OU's best ever; the only debate is over who they would supplant as No. 1."

Headlines all over the country followed suit.

"No one gave us a shot to win that game. I remember talking to my family before the game, and I said we were going to win. They all looked at me like I was crazy."

In Florida, the Lakeland Ledger offered up that the "Sooners could be best ever." The Dallas Morning News topped its coverage with "Some say this OU team ranks with any in college history." In that article, legendary Sooner coach Barry Switzer said, "Win the rest of them, and they're the best team I've ever seen at Oklahoma."

It was impossible to get away from the hype.

"It was us against the world," says Shull. "No one gave us a shot to win that game. I remember talking to my family before the game, and I said we were going to win. They all looked at me like I was crazy."

But how did the ever-focused Bill Snyder approach the media circus?

"It's a motivational thing quite obviously, so you don't totally abstain from it," he says. "To be consistent, we've always addressed that it doesn't really matter who you're playing. It's how we prepare and how we play, and that should define the outcome of this or any other ballgame. But, by the same token, we didn't hide the media exposure to Oklahoma and what a talented team they were."

It was all over television the week leading up to the game. On ESPN's Around the Horn, Woody Paige was asked if K-State had any shot.

"Oklahoma has the best defense in the country! They're not going to lose here and now! There's absolutely no shot!" he said.

On College Gameday, before the game, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit even went as far as to physically hold his arms out wide when asked for a prediction.

"Sooners," he said. "Big."

Earlier he had been asked how the Wildcats could stop Oklahoma.

"You gotta say pray."

In the eyes of most of the media, the game was already decided. Actually playing it was just a formality. The Kansas State players disagreed.

When asked how confident they were going into the game, Josh Buhl doesn't hesitate.

"We knew we were a better team," Buhl says "We didn't win by intimidating people with our name. We won by intimidating with our game."

The Wildcats believed. Now all they had to do was prove it.

★ ★ ★

K-State took the opening kickoff and quickly went three and out. Two carries by Darren Sproles accounted for only two yards. A rushed throw by Roberson on third down was off target, forcing the 'Cats to punt.

Four Sooner plays later, they were getting the ball back, but not the way they wanted.

"It was just a broken coverage," says Sims. "One player missed an assignment, the running back cut the corner and was gone."

Oklahoma's Kejuan Jones ran 42 yards up the left sideline for the first score of the game. Less than three minutes into the game, the Wildcats trailed the best college football team ever, 7-0.

"I know once people saw that, there was probably a lot of doubt," Sims continues. "But we just stuck with the game plan."

K-State stalled again on its next drive after a seven-yard run by Sproles on second down was erased by a false-start penalty. Jared Brite came on to punt, but netted only 25 yards and Oklahoma took over at midfield.

The defense came out stronger on the next drive, forcing the Sooners to a three and out, but the Wildcat offense again couldn't establish the run, and faced a fourth down from their own five after an illegal substitution penalty forced them back. Despite the early struggles, the players never worried.

(Getty Images)

"I just felt like we needed to settle down," James Terry says. "We were trying so hard to go out there and do too much."

Brite was punting from his own end line, inches from a safety. Oklahoma punt returner Antonio Perkins was standing in Kansas State territory waiting for the return. The situation seemed dismal.

Brent Musberger highlighted the 'Cat's misfortune from the broadcast booth. "Even if Perkins just fair catches, you've gained five yards in field position."

Brite's booming punt left the Sooners at their own 37. The teams traded punts before Oklahoma was forced to settle for a 44-yard field goal attempt by the usually automatic Trey DiCarlo. It sailed wide, and the score remained 7-0.

On the first play of the ensuing drive, Sproles took a pitch from Roberson off the left side. Sooners All-Big 12 defensive back Derrick Strait read the play perfectly, but Sproles spun and threw Strait to the ground in the backfield, then dashed up the sideline for 55 yards.

The offensive patience had paid off. Two plays later, on third down with 11 yards to go, K-State lined up with two tight ends, a single running back and Roberson under center.

"I knew I would be wide open when they came out with the defense exactly as we practiced it during the week," former tight end Brian Casey says. "Antoine Polite came in motion to run a flag pattern and get the safety to bite to him, and I split the middle where no one was.

"When I caught the pass, I thought there would be someone behind me going to hit me. That's the reason I fell down after the catch. I was getting ready for a big hit and never got one."

K-State kept the momentum rolling. After an Oklahoma three-and-out, K-State got the ball back on its own 37-yard line. On the first play, K-State lined up in the I-formation with two tight ends. Roberson took the snap and faked a play action with Sproles. He set his feet, pump-faked once and unloaded a bomb down the far sideline to Terry. Antonio Perkins had Terry covered step for step, but the pass was underthrown. Terry slowed and made a great adjustment to the ball. Perkins tried to follow suit but lost his balance and Terry was gone.

The Sooners had only trailed on the scoreboard for six minutes of game time the entire season. The Kansas State Wildcats had just scored twice in less than three minutes to take a 14-7 lead.

After the two teams again traded three and outs, Oklahoma finally put together its first sustained drive of the game. Jason White drove the Sooner offense 78 yards to K-State's 12-yard line, never seeing a third down. A roughing the passer penalty on second down set up Oklahoma with first and goal from the six. It appeared as though White - who came into the game completing more than 65 percent of his passes for more than 3,400 yards and 40 touchdowns while throwing only six interceptions - was finally imposing his will on the K-State defense.

★ ★ ★

The defensive game plan dreamed up by coordinators Bret Bielema and Bob Elliot really came down to one mission: hit the quarterback. Normally, this would involve a lot of blitzing, but the Wildcats couldn't afford to leave the shallow part of the field open against a team known for its ability to attack with underneath routes. Thus, the primary pass rush responsibility fell on the shoulders of defensive ends Thomas Houchin and Andrew Shull. Backed up to their own goal line against the best quarterback in the nation, it was now or never.

On first down, White dropped back, found no one open, and attempted to scramble as the pocket collapsed around him. White was recruited as somewhat of a dual threat, but major knee injuries in each of the previous two seasons had all but ruined his mobility. After gaining only one yard, he was met by both Sims and Buhl as he dove to the ground. White came up slowly and labored back to the huddle.

Oklahoma came out with four wide on the next play. Houchin and Shull again couldn't get past the Sooner tackles, and White fired the ball toward a wide open Will Peoples in the back of the end zone, but the ball fluttered to the turf thanks to the outstretched hand of Ted Sims.

On third down, good K-State coverage gave Shull time to penetrate and flush White to the far side of the field, where Houchin was waiting. White lofted a desperation throw into the end zone a split second before Houchin delivered a hit, driving his helmet into White's upper arm and slamming the soon-to-be Heisman winner to the turf. The ball sailed into the waiting arms of K-State safety James McGill.

Interception.

"In a sense, that's what we were going for. Not to injure [White], but to hit everyone and everything."

The Kansas State Wildcats had a touchdown lead over the undisputed No. 1 team in the land and had just dealt the most crushing blow the Sooners had received all season. In one play, they had turned the momentum of the game completely in their favor and sent the most statistically prolific offensive weapon in the country to the sidelines with his throwing arm dangling like a windsock.

"In a sense," Josh Buhl says, "that's what we were going for. Not to injure [White], but to hit everyone and everything."

It was still early, but the narrative of the entire matchup - and possibly the entire season - had shifted ever so slightly. But not even the best of storytellers could have dreamed what would happen from there.

★ ★ ★

In the history of Kansas State football, there has been no more electrifying, elusive and effective offensive weapon than Darren Sproles. In the 2003 regular season, Sproles led the nation in all-purpose yards with 2,305. He gained more than 1,700 of those yards on the ground, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and twice set the school record for rushing yards in a game.

Though Oklahoma was able to keep Sproles bottled up for most of the first half, he had busted the 55-yard run at the start of the second quarter that set up the first Wildcat score and started the offense rolling. Now, with Oklahoma vulnerable after the turnover, it was time to turn Sproles loose again.

After four plays, K-State faced a second and four from its 40-yard line. Roberson took the snap under center and the line blocked just long enough for him to see the two linebackers split wide to opposite sides of the field. Sproles slipped through the middle just as the guards let the defensive line crash on Roberson and ran upfield to set a wall. Roberson dumped a short pass to Sproles who made one cut and sprinted 60 yards up the right side of the wide-open Arrowhead Stadium field to put K-State up 21-7.

It wasn't quite halftime but the Wildcat offense that had struggled to gain positive yardage in the first quarter had now gained more than 250 yards and put up 21 points.

On the ensuing drive, White came out strong with three consecutive completions for first downs. A holding penalty on the next play stalled the effort as White's third down completion to Will Peoples came up short of the marker. The Sooners faced a fourth and one from K-State's 35-yard line.

Oklahoma came into the game with one of the most productive and consistent offenses many had ever seen. Now, there wasn't a lot of time left in the half and they were set to get the ball to open the third quarter. Head coach Bob Stoops decided to roll the dice. White ran a play fake and elected to float the pass over the top in the direction of tight end Lance Donley. It sailed over Donley's head.

Less than 90 seconds of game time later, the two teams would head to the locker room with the Wildcats still leading 21-7. The challenger had the champ dazed and confused. All it needed now was the knockout blow.

★ ★ ★

In 1998, Kansas State faced off with the Texas A&M Aggies in the Big 12 Championship game. Miami had defeated second-ranked UCLA earlier that day, giving K-State an avenue to its first national championship appearance if it could secure victory. In that game, Aggie quarterback Branndon Stewart threw three touchdowns - a Big 12 Championship game record - on the way to a 36-33 double overtime upset of the Wildcats. K-State's defensive coordinator in that game was Mike Stoops. Now with Oklahoma, Stoops' defense had allowed Roberson to tie Stewart's record in just one half.

The Wildcats took over for their first possession of the second half after DiCarlo missed his second field goal of the game. Roberson and Sproles combined for 70 yards on the ground, carrying the team all the way down to the Sooners 10-yard line. On the next play, Roberson took the snap under center and ran a play fake to Sproles, which froze the Oklahoma linebackers. Roberson rolled right on a bootleg and found Antoine Polite open in the end zone to give the Wildcats a 28-7 lead. It was Polite's first touchdown of the season, and it gave Roberson the Big 12 championship game record with four touchdown passes.

Twice, in half a decade, a Mike Stoops-led defense had given up the Big 12 Championship record for touchdown passes.

★ ★ ★

(Getty Images)

Before Dec. 6, the Oklahoma Sooners offense had scored at least 20 points in every game and at least 34 in every conference game during the 2003 season. After another stalled drive to end the third quarter, the Sooners entered the final fifteen minutes with only seven points. Time was running out on the greatest team ever.

The Oklahoma defense held strong against Roberson and company, forcing Brite to punt on K-State's first drive of the fourth quarter. Jason White trotted out onto the field with just under eleven minutes remaining, essentially needing a touchdown on every possession to have a chance at victory.

After the first two plays of the drive amounted to a mere three yards, the Sooners faced a third down from their own 23-yard line. White came out in shotgun with four wide receivers and Renaldo Works lined up to his right. White took the snap and quickly dropped back as K-State defensive end Kevin Huntley came off the edge and blew through the right tackle. With Huntley bearing down, White fired a quick pass to the left intended for Mark Clayton. Standing in the way of Clayton was Ted Sims, who leaped, grabbed the ball and ran untouched 27 yards to the end zone. He didn't stop running.

"After Ted intercepted that ball, I was by Oklahoma's sideline," says Josh Buhl. "I ran by, and I pointed at them, and I was saying ‘We finally got you!'"

There were still more than ten minutes remaining, but everyone in Arrowhead Stadium knew the game was over. Kansas State had done the impossible. This wasn't just a win. It was a rout. And it was arguably the biggest win in school history.

"I think it is the biggest win," says James Terry. "Oklahoma was a great team, and for us to go out there and beat them like that just shows what could've happened if we would have stayed focused the whole year."

Buhl agrees.

"I know that a lot of games are special in different people's hearts, but I think because it was the first championship and - not taking anything away from [2012's] championship - but because it was actually a championship game, that was special."

"I would say it has to rank up there with the biggest wins," says Brian Casey. "The first football conference championship in school history has to mean something. It is an honor to say that I was part of that team."

"I wear the Big XII championship ring every time I go back to Manhattan and feel very proud of it. I can't say enough about the fans. They were always great and were behind us no matter what."

Coach Snyder is never one for hyperbole, and he sees it as just one shining moment.

"Everybody has their favorite," he says. "And, certainly, that was a premiere performance for our players, but there have been other significant games that have made a difference in a season or in the program."

"All of them have significance but some certainly more than others."

Andrew Shull shares Snyder's view.

"I think that championship game was just a piece in the puzzle," Shull says. "You look at every game, and I don't think there's any game that's necessarily greater than the other."

"I think K-State's best days are yet to come."

★ ★ ★

(Getty Images)

Each of the players from the 2003 team has moved on with their lives in one way or another. Offensive linemen Jeromey Clary and Ryan Lilja are still active in the NFL. Darren Sproles, of course, has gone onto a fantastic, record-setting NFL career despite doubts about his size. Lineman Nick Leckey also spent a few years in the league.

Ell Roberson played in the CFL for a few years before becoming a health and safety engineer at an oil company near Houston. But as always, a college football team - even a successful one -- is made up of far more than the guys who suit up to play on Sundays.

James Terry lives in Sioux Falls, S.D. where he works with DakotAbilities, a non-profit organization providing services to persons with disabilities. He's also still playing football for the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League. He has two children and plans to get into college coaching in the coming years.

Andrew Shull married Shay Lowe, sister of former Wildcat linebacker Sean Lowe. They will celebrate their tenth anniversary in March 2014. They have two children and plan to adopt a third. Shull works as a State Farm agent in Texas.

Brian Casey is an accountant at the University of Kansas Physicians in Kansas City. He has two children who are very active in sports and hopes that one day his son will follow in his footsteps as a K-State football player.

"Not many people can say that they've been able to do something like that."

Ted Sims is the owner of Sims Global Solutions, a multi-mode freight transportation company based out of Dallas. He is very close with his extended family, including his nieces and nephews who are all big Wildcat fans.

Josh Buhl played football for four years after college, spending time in the NFL, NFL Europe and CFL. He now lives in Austin working as an operations manager for Frito-Lay.

And then there's the third linebacker, Bryan Hickman, who died in January 2012. Bryan is survived by his wife, Angela, and by the fond memories of his teammates who played alongside him through that tumultuous 2003 season. No teammate was closer to Hickman than Josh Buhl.

"He was my best friend," says Buhl. "It's still hard to talk about him. He was a great guy, had a lovable personality, loved by everyone and would give you the shirt off his back. He was my best friend since high school and I loved him to death."

"I think about him all the time, and I wish he was here, but it was great being able to spend high school and college with him, and then even have the opportunity to go to the [Cleveland] Browns together and spend training camp together. Not many people can say that they've been able to do something like that."

"He was a great addition to that defense. He held his own. He was a great part of us winning that championship as well."

★ ★ ★


Ten years have passed since Kansas State football reached its peak on Dec. 6, 2003. But for the players who played, the images of that night will always remain. Though it seemed that the whole world doubted them, they never doubted themselves. Because when your mind is full of doubt, there's no room for memories.

Producer: Luke Zimmermann | Editor: Tye Burger | Copy Editors: Jon Morse, Curtis Kitchen | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

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A lifelong fan of K-State football, Derek joined the BOTC staff in 2012. Born into a family of Wildcat fans, his first sports memory is watching the 1993 Copper Bowl. He is a firm believer that the 2003 Big 12 Championship was the most perfect game in the history of sports. He lives in Manhattan, KS.

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