Quarterback Josh Freeman and other Kansas State players can start making plans for Dec. 1, as the team's 31-20 loss to Iowa State on Saturday all but officially eliminated the Wildcats from the Big 12 Championship game that is slated for that date. And while most K-State players knew playing for a conference championship was unlikely heading into Saturday, the team's most recent loss brought with it a cold sense of reality. It all started with a tone-setting fumble on the game's opening kickoff that helped Iowa State take a lead it never relinquished.
"There is no such thing a crushing, but it hurts," said linebacker Ian Campbell when asked about K-State's failure to meet the goal it set for itself down during preseason camp. "There are still three ballgames to be played, if not more."
So with its ultimate goal now out of reach, the Wildcats will turn their attention toward qualifying for a second-consecutive postseason game, and nobody in K-State's locker room is ready to fall short of another goal this season. The loss dropped K-State to 5-4 on the season and 3-3 in Big 12 play, while Iowa State moves to 2-8 and 1-5.
"Obviously, a bowl game is still in sight for us," said senior linebacker Justin Roland. We just have to concentrate on getting better."
While it was Freeman's failure to find the end zone from 1-yard out late in the fourth quarter that ultimately put K-State away, when the Wildcats decide to start their search for reasons for Saturday's disheartening loss, they won't need to look any further than the game's first 25 minutes.
It was apparent early that Saturday might not have been one of K-State's best afternoons, as running back James Johnson, who rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, fumbled the game's opening kickoff, giving Iowa State favorable field position. Seven plays later, the Wildcats were in a 7-0 hole. A one-yard touchdown pass from Iowa State quarterback Bret Myer to wide out Derrick Catlett marked the first K-State had fallen behind an opponent to open a game this season.
Head coach Ron Prince's team would never recover.
"We let that fumble at the beginning get us down a little bit. It shouldn't have, but we didn't play our best in the first half," said sophomore Eric Childs. "It seemed like (the fumble) got us down."
After surrendering an early lead, the K-State offense, which has been billed as a well-oiled Ferrari as of late, looked more like a 12-year old Buick for the majority of the first half, gaining a mere 27 yards in the game's first quarter.
"I'm not pleased with any part of our operation today," Prince said in a post-game press conference
A 26-yard Deon Murphy punt return set K-State up with a scoring chance from the Iowa State 37-yard line midway through the first quarter, but a bad snap from center Trevor Viers impeded any thought of forward progress, and the drive resulted in a K-State punt.
And things would get worse.
With K-State trailing 14-0, Jordy Nelson, who hauled in 13 catches for 194 yards in the game, grabbed a 58-yard pass from Josh Freeman on the second quarter's first play to set up K-state at the ISU 12. It would remain a two-possession game, however, as the K-State offense would stall again, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a 28-yard Brooks Rossman field goal.
Iowa State's offense was as good as K-State's was bad in the game's early stages, however, as the Cyclones were able to expose the Wildcat defense for a season-high 21 first-half points, establishing tempo and an 11-point halftime lead.
"I was concerned that, from an offensive standpoint, they were going to keep the ball for a long time and make us make the most of our possessions," said Prince of the Cyclones, who controlled the clock throughout the games first half.
A pair of deep passes from Austen Arnaud, who replaced Meyer under center for Iowa State in short stretches, set the Cyclones up with first and ten from inside the K-State 5-yard line late in the game's first quarter, and ultimately resulted in a three-yard touchdown run by Iowa State freshman running back Alexander Robinson. The score gave the Cyclones a 14-0 lead, and provided K-State with their largest deficit of the year.
Yet the Wildcats were able to keep their heads above water , for a while anyway.
After a 2-yard Robinson touchdown run grew the Cyclone lead to 18, the Wildcats' offense began to show life. Josh Freeman and Nelson connected for a 13-yard touchdown, capping off a 69-yard drive, and pulling K-State within 11 before the halftime whistle.
A 46-yard Rossman field goal attempt, which would have brought the Wildcats within five during the third quarter, sailed wide right, before the Cyclones were able to extend their lead back to 18 on a 25-yard Bret Culbertson kick that split the uprights.
"It's the Big 12. Anything can happen," said Roland, who recorded five tackles in the loss. "You have to go out every Saturday and play good football. If you don't, you're going to get beat."
K-State returns to the road next Saturday when it travels to Nebraska for an 11:30 a.m. game that will be broadcast on the Versus Network.
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