MANHATTAN, Kan. - Not 30 minutes following the No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats 20-14 loss to the No. 5 Auburn Tigers, Kansas State senior defensive end Ryan Mueller stood tall in front of a group of reporters.
Normally even-keeled in postgame settings, Mueller's words matched his breathing this time -- a bit quicker than normal, controlled but tense. A bead of sweat refused to move from just above his temple. A reporter tried to give a warm spin to the night - pointing out the reasonable statistical success K-State had in holding Auburn's offense.
Mueller wanted none of it.
"No loss is a feather I want to put in my ball cap," he said.
He was then asked if the defensive strategy was such that, given another opportunity, the game's result would have been different. Again, Mueller pointed to the end result and nothing else.
"Kinda hard to say 'shoulda, woulda, coulda.' The moment was to play Thursday night here, and there's no backing down from it," said Mueller, who had five tackles and a pass breakup. "There's no shoulda, woulda, coulda; (or) 'I wish our coach did this and that.' No. The game plan was to win the ball game, and we didn't win the ball game."
In a nutshell, that's it.
And it was that was the collective feeling shared by players I spoke to afterward. Mueller, Dakorey Johnson (more on him later), Jonathan Truman, Jake Waters, B.J. Finney, Tyler Lockett ... you think you hurt a little in watching K-State let an opportunity slide against a supposedly superior team? Try being the guys involved who know they did. You could chug a full fifth of Jack Daniels and not feel as ill about it.
And, if this is where K-State's collective mindset rests today, the rest of the season is in fine shape because I also got the feeling that this group truly wanted to get back on the field and get back to work. Their season isn't over.
After attempting to explain his tone-setting end zone drop ("It's just one of those plays; you just drop the ball. I don't know what happened; I'm still trying to figure out what happened," he said), Lockett then was asked how many footballs he would go catch off a JUGS machine.
"Who knows? Unlimited," he said. "The main thing is just watch film, see what happened, see what I need to work on, go back in there. The leaders have to be able to step up here today or whenever we come back in here and just get the team going again."
"The team" includes kicker Jack Cantele, who took three kicks to become the most talked about player on the team.
Part of the outrage directed at Cantele, I think, came out of the completely unexpected problems he had. He shocked the stadium on the first miss and went downhill from there - capped with the 22-yard miss. Bill Snyder - using the aid of attention to detail to help assign additional blame - said the snaps* and holds were suspect on multiple occasions.
*Side thought: Do you remember Corey Adams? The former Wildcat was recruited by Ron Prince for one reason only: His perfect long-snapping ability. He played four years under Prince and Snyder and never missed a snap -- even if he drew a penalty once. People wondered back then about the scholarship going to a guy with such a specific skill. Welp ...
Fact is, he's right, and it's not fair to place all blame on Cantele, whose career field goal percentage was .833 before Thursday and included a 41-yard game winner versus TCU last year.
So, yeah, we'll just leave it there because there's no need to beleaguer the point. To a guy, every player lauded what Cantele has meant to the team in the past season-plus. Still, if a kicking competition opens up because of it, so be it. If not, so be it. As of now, I'm willing to bet the job is still Cantele's to lose, and we can revisit it if the new-found yips don't go away as fast as they appeared.*
*UPDATE: Cantele posted the following message on Twitter: "At the end of the day if it had to happen to someone, I'm glad it was me and not any of my teammates. I can handle it & we will get better." He may have missed three kicks, but he drilled this baby home.
Back on the big-picture level ...
This team understands it is good and can be better. Tyler Lockett was wide open in the end zone. Curry Sexton's route running had him open all night long. Jake Waters, for the most part, was on the money. The offensive line did a serviceable job against what could be the most ferocious front four it will see this season. (Auburn's guys were flat nasty - as big, strong and physical as advertised.) And, of course, the defense was more than good enough to win that game.
On that defensive note, it is now obvious this team does, in fact, have the talent to be a serious player in the Big 12. As each season has its unexpected turns, this one presented two gems in watching Johnson at linebacker and safety Travis Green blossom in their increased roles. The pair instantly increased the defense's overall speed and play-making ability as they combined for 11 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and an interception.
While the fan base keeps having to strain its neck toward the sideline in order to catch a glimpse of much-hyped D'Vonta Derricott, Isaiah Riddle and Terrell Clinkscales, others like Johnson have found the field the ol'-fashioned way.
"The coaches have just seen me playing in practice, and they told me I was going to get a lot more playing time," said Johnson, the younger brother of former KSU wideout Quincy Morgan. "I was prepared like I was going to go out there and start, and I did today.
"[The coaches] just told me I need to be a part of the team. I couldn't do my job without everybody else doing their job, and somebody else can't do their job without me doing my job."
The job now is to keep moving forward. This wasn't a soul-crushing defeat to a lesser opponent. This wasn't a season-ending game; not with nine more remaining.
Some felt this was a "prove it" game for K-State. I'll contend it proved plenty, even if it didn't win. Don't mistake that as a moral victory - I don't believe in them. It was a huge opportunity missed, but the point is this team is built to where it should have similar opportunities in the future (hi, Baylor and Oklahoma).
The Cats just have to take advantage the next time.
Sign "stealing": Deal with it.
I missed this last night as I was in the press box and didn't hear the feed, but Bill Snyder told ESPN that Auburn was able to read K-State's signals from the sideline. Quick thought on this: And?
In baseball, I've never understood the dumb outrage that results from one of that game's idiotic unspoken rules when one team is able to decipher the other's communication. In any sport, if your opponent figures you out, it's your problem, not theirs. I'm
not shocked unimpressed with ESPN dedicating a whole page to an in-game advantage that was remedied at halftime; kind of like I'm unimpressed that Snyder brought it up at all. If anything, in a night that was filled with purple error (despite no penalty flags, ironically), add this to the "do better" list.