K-State’s improbable Cotton Bowl run in 2011 is rightly revered among Wildcat fans as one of the most enjoyable seasons in school history. After a 7-6 campaign in 2010, nobody reasonably expected anything resembling 10-2 in 2011.
The 2011 Wildcats won eight games by less than one score. They protected the ball to an almost comical degree, turning it over only 15 times in 13 games. It took years off all our lives, but winning eases the sting of an earlier grave.
The 2016 campaign has not been so enjoyable. K-State is 5-4 (3-3), and is 3-2 in one-score games. But let’s compare a couple things from the two years, just for grins.
K-State 28, Miami 24: With the Wildcats leading, 28-24, Miami got the ball back at its own 49-yard line with 3:52 remaining. In fives plays, Miami drove the ball to the K-State two-yard line and had a first down. Four chances to punch the ball in from two yards away.
You all know what happened next.
But let’s assume it didn’t. On fourth down, the officials ruled that Jacory Harris scored. Replay showed he was just short. But what if the video evidence was inconclusive? What if Tre Walker took a tick longer to read the play? What if Walker had stumbled while pursuing Harris? The margin between victory and defeat was about an inch in this game.
K-State 53, Texas A&M 50 (4 OT): The Aggies already led, 28-21, when they got the ball on their own 20 with 9:29 to play. After gaining eight yards on first down, Cyrus Gray broke free down the right sideline for what looked like a touchdown run. K-State’s Matt Pearson chased him down after 63 yards, but Texas A&M had first and goal from K-State’s nine-yard line. If Pearson doesn’t make this play, and it took a heroic effort from him to do so, then the Aggies take a 35-21 lead with about eight minutes left in the game, and K-State has approximately a one percent chance of winning.
K-State 17, Texas 13: This may be the biggest stretch of the three, because K-State led most of the game. But recall that it was uncertain whether Collin Klein would even play in this game after the beating he took all season. As it was, K-State gained only 121 yards in the game.
With about three minutes remaining in the first half and the score tied at 3-3, Texas punted from its own 36. K-State received the punt at its own 31, but the officials called a controversial kick-catch interference penalty on Texas, moving K-State out to its own 46.
After seven plays — and two Texas timeouts — K-State faced third down and three yards to go at the Texas 16. Klein threw a perfect back-shoulder fade to Chris Harper in the end zone, and K-State had a 10-3 lead with nine seconds left in the first half.
There are at least three “ifs” on this one. If the officials hadn’t called kick-catch interference, then K-State would have had 69 yards to go rather than 54, and may not have had enough time. If Texas hadn’t called a timeout after sacking Klein around midfield, then K-State may not have had enough time. And if Klein had misfired on a difficult throw, or Harper had dropped the pass, then K-State has to attempt a 33-yard field goal.
I won’t belabor the point by going over crucial plays in other games. But recall that K-State beat Eastern Kentucky by three, Baylor by one, Missouri by seven, Texas Tech — with a pick six, a special teams score, and a blocked field goal — by seven, and Iowa State by seven. The only one-score game K-State lost on the year was the shootout in Stillwater.
But what about 2016. Glad you asked.
West Virginia 17, K-State 16: K-State led, 13-3, in the third quarter and had the ball on West Virginia’s 16. It was second and nine, and Ertz found Byron Pringle open in the end zone. The pass was on the mark, but Pringle dropped it.
Had Pringle caught the pass, K-State would have led, 20-3, with about 10 minute remaining. The Wildcats got a field goal off the drive, but it wouldn’t be enough as West Virginia scored two late touchdowns to win by a point.
Oklahoma State 43, K-State 37: Familiar refrain here. K-State held a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter, but a coverage bust led to an 82-yard touchdown for Oklahoma State and the Cowboys took the lead after an eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive.
K-State got the ball back on its own 39 with 1:39 left. The Wildcats drove to the Oklahoma State three-yard line and had second and goal with 10 seconds left. An offensive pass interference penalty wiped out a pass completion to the one-yard line, so K-State had the ball at the Cowboys 18 and one shot to score. On the last play, OSU’s Jordan Sterns intercepted Ertz and the Pokes held on.
What if the completion to the one had stood? K-State would’ve had one chance to punch the ball in with a quarterback sneak, which has been all-but-automatic this year.
So what are we talking about?
We talk about it all the time. K-State is competitive in football because its coach is one of the best program managers the world has ever seen. We find advantages in the margins overlooked by supposedly superior programs and manage to win games when getting outgained by 200 yards.
But that’s a razor-thin line to walk. The Wildcats have very little margin for error. Some years, like in 2011, everything goes right and the result is magical. Some years, not everything goes right, and there’s a lot of frustration.
Let’s assume that the three plays identified in 2011 had gone against K-State. Ceteris paribus, K-State loses all three games and finishes the regular season 7-5. Instead of the Cotton Bowl, the Wildcats face North Carolina in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Now, let’s assume that the two plays above work out in K-State’s favor. The Wildcats are 7-2 overall, and 5-1 and one game behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings. K-State is probably a top 20 team with a good shot at the Sugar Bowl.
This isn’t about some moral victory bullshit. It’s an illustration of the nearly non-existent margin of error upon which K-State operates.