The 2003 football season had not proceeded according to plan for K-State. The Wildcats began the year ranked No. 7 in the country and devoured four cupcakes in August and the first half of September. But quarterback Ell Roberson suffered a hand injury in the third game of the season, forcing McLouth, Kansas product and former walk-on Jeff Schwinn into the starting quarterback position.
Schwinn handled his first start just fine, as the ‘Cats dispatched UMass 38-7. But on September 20, with K-State now ranked No. 6, Marshall came to town. (I apologize for mentioning it; I feel the collective cringe it induced.) That game turned for the worst when Schwinn made a terrible decision on an option pitch that the Thundering Herd stole out of the air and ran 90 yards the other way for a touchdown. The game ended in a 27-20 Wildcat loss, so the impact of that potential 14-point swing was momentous.
Roberson returned to the lineup in Austin against No. 13 Texas the next week, but the team lost 24-20 and followed that disappointment with a 38-34 loss at unranked Oklahoma State. The Wildcats would rediscover their mojo in three consecutive home shellackings of inferior foes Colorado (49-20), Kansas (42-6) and Baylor (38-10). They would then go on the road to humiliate Iowa State 45-0. (To be fair to the Cyclones, at least it wasn’t one of the typical Charlie-Brown’s-football affairs that have come to characterize the Cats’ series with them.)
That brings us to the big occasion: November 15, 2003 in Memorial Stadium, Lincoln Nebraska. No. 18 Cornhuskers vs. unranked K-State Wildcats.
The ‘Huskers, behind sixth-year head coach Frank Solich and athletic quarterback Jammal Lord, were 8-2. Earlier in the season, as the No. 10 team in the country, they had lost 41-24 at Missouri (the Wikipedia season schedule on the Huskers’ page includes the hilarious parenthetical “rivalry,” which I guess is supposed to soften the humiliation). They had also been demolished at Texas, 31-7.
By Nebraska standards, Solich’s team was a disappointment. After an unforgivable 7-7 campaign in 2002, this was supposed to be their bounce-back year. The road losses stung. But they were 8-2 overall, and nearly unbeatable in Lincoln. From 1991 to 1998, the Cornhuskers won 47 straight home games, a streak that the children of the corn never forgave Texas for ending. Even in going .500 the previous season, they had lost only one home game. Again, infuriatingly, to Texas.
K-State had faltered, too, and the voters did not think enough of their resume to rank them before the Nebraska trip. Kansas State had not won at Nebraska since 1968. It was Senior Day for the Huskers, and K-State was expected to take its biennial Lincoln loss, as usual, and regroup for a third-tier bowl game.
Despite the mutual disappointments, both teams were 4-2 in league play. The outcome would put the game’s winner in the position of favorite to with the North Division of the Big 12 and on track to contest Oklahoma—perhaps the greatest college football team ever assembled, let’s not forget—in the Big 12 Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Ell Roberson talked incessantly from the Tuesday press conference until the final seconds ticked off the clock. Darren Sproles dominated the blackshirt defense—much to the fury of the then-Nebraska defensive coordinator Bo Pelini—deep into the 4th quarter. The K-State defense stymied Lord and the Nebraska offense, whose only touchdown came on a controversial throw when Lord’s knee appeared to be down.
After a 7-7 tie at halftime suggested the game might be a classic slugfest, K-State exploded for 31 second-half points, while allowing the Huskers only a meaningless late safety on a botched 4th down play. In the end, K-State had gained 561 yards against the vaunted blackshirt defense, while holding the Husker offense to only 293 yards. The final score of what started off an evenly-matched game would be 38-9.
I was fortunate enough to attend this game, the only K-State road game I’ve seen, other than half a dozen or so in Lawrence. Several things about it still stand out in my memory.
First, I was asked by Nebraska fans before and during the game whether everyone was treating me okay. The first time, I thought it was charming. The second, it seemed a little strange. I knew Nebraskans prided themselves on being the nation’s best football fans. Hell, they even had a sign on the stadium proclaiming: “Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football.” Considering the humiliations they regularly dealt to their opponents, the concern for visiting fans started to strike me as rather patronizing. But when another fan put aside his wounded pride to ask me again on my way out of the stadium whether the home crowd was treating me well, I decided that—for some of them, at least—the hospitable sentiment was genuine.
Of course, this game went a long way toward changing that fan base’s view of its own coach. The 38-9 beating was Nebraska’s worst home loss in 45 years. Memory number two is of Bo Pelini needing to be physically restrained as he tried to get at Coach Snyder for having the heartlessness to send Darren Sproles back into the game in the fourth quarter to pursue a record when the outcome was already decided. Never mind that Nebraska in the preceding decades had beaten K-State by scores of 55-0, 49-3, 62-14 and 39-3, just to pick a few scores at random. Pelini raged, “You saw the game. You make your deductions,” leaving us to ponder whether it’s more stunning that Pelini was thoroughly ignorant of history or that he knew the word “deductions.”
Memories three and four were plays. One of them saw Darren Sproles literally drag a would-be tackler who had a firm grasp on him from behind from the five yard line to the end zone. The other was a perfectly-executed hitch-and-go route by James Terry along the left sideline. The play, early in the fourth quarter, found him wide open, and a perfect throw from Roberson led to a 63-yard touchdown. It was also a preview of the play that would turn the momentum of a certain game three weeks later in Arrowhead.
With the score now 24-7, that sideline route also led the self-anointed “greatest fans in college football” to abandon Memorial stadium early. For me, that—the most enjoyable of all of them—is memory number five. Nebraska red had overwhelmed purple at K-State home games for decades. For almost all of the fourth quarter, K-State fans got to celebrate nearly by themselves in the Huskers’ home stadium.
Come jog your memories or make some new ones as we relive the day. Game will begin streaming at 1:00 CDT. Here is the link: