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Spoiler alert: Zentner’s smile foreshadows Big 12 result

Kicker saw the opportunity, not the what-ifs.

Big 12 Championship - Kansas State v TCU Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

It is overtime Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington, Texas, and Kansas State’s offense faces third and six at the 10 yard line from the left hash. Thanks to a clutch overtime coin toss and epic goal line stand, all the Wildcats need to win the championship is a score. They’re ready for this: they run the Wisconsin drill in practice all the time. Quarterback Will Howard takes the snap under center and slid down right between the hashes to set up a 31-yard field goal to win.

As the kick team comes on, ABC play-by-play man Chris Fowler said what everybody watching at home (or in my case, at a local bicycle shop) could see:

“Ty Zentner, the senior from Topeka by way of Butler Community College, comes out there with a smile.”

That was when I knew K-State was winning the championship.

Zentner was a latecomer to football. Soccer was his sport — as a goalkeeper — until his senior year at Shawnee Heights High School. But he picked up football quickly, earning honorable mention all-state honors in his one season. He went on to Butler Community College, spending two seasons as a punter and kicker. He was the highest-rated juco kicker coming out of Butler and signed with K-State.

He was a good punter and kickoff specialist as a junior and senior, averaging 42.5 yards per punt, which would rank fourth in K-State history among qualifying players, but he wasn’t used much as a kicker. He didn’t kick any field goals or extra points his junior year, and in 2020 he was 0/1 on field goals and 6-6 on extra points.

This year as a super senior, he’s taken his punting to another level. He has averaged 44.7 yards per punt, which is currently second in school history behind Devin Anctil’s 2019 season, and has raised his career average to 43.5 yards per punt, also good for second place in school history, about 4 inches per punt behind Anctil (and just ahead of some guy named Sean Snyder). And he hasn’t just booted long punts; he and the punt team have repeatedly pinned opponents deep inside the 20 with very few touchbacks. He earned selection as a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award and was named to the All Big 12 Second Team on Nov. 30.

Zentner took over full-time field goal and extra point duties for the final five regular season games, and he has been perfect. Entering the Big 12 Championship Game, he was 28/28 on extra points and 8/8 on field goals, including a long of 53 yards at West Virginia.

“Over the past five or six weeks, there may not be a more valuable member of this football team than Ty Zentner,” head coach Chris Klieman said after the game.

So when I saw him run onto the field smiling before the highest-stakes kick of his K-State career, I knew he had this in the bag. He didn’t get in his own head. He wasn’t nervous. He wasn’t worried about being a scapegoat if he missed. Instead, he was excited to do what so many kids imagine doing while playing in their yards: go out there with one play and the spotlight on him to win a championship. And that’s what he did.

The snap was good. The hold was good. The protection was good. And Zentner kicked it cleanly. Right down the middle of the uprights, with plenty of distance to spare.

The Wildcats were Big 12 champions and Zentner’s teammates carried him off the field a hero. All that is left is to finish his K-State football career on New Year’s Eve when the Wildcats play the fifth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the 89th Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

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