DENTON, Texas -- Lugging around the Big 12's worst rush defense, attempting to avoid a three-game losing streak and playing its final regular-season game on the road inside a sparsely populated throwback of a stadium, nobody on the Kansas State sideline was expecting many style points in the squad's 49-41 win over North Texas, and those expectations weren't exceeded. Following the contest, K-State players suggested they may overlooked Saturday's opponent, but the words were wasted breath as they'd already made the point quite nicely on the field.
Mean Green tailback Lance Dunbar gave the Wildcat defense the scout-team treatment as he shredded coordinator Chris Cosh's unit for a career-high 270 yards on the ground. The Wildcats turned the ball over, gave up a kick return touchdown and trailed a Sun Belt Conference opponent for the majority of the opening half. So, while he wasn't exactly forced to sweat out the final quarter, Coach Bill Snyder, like everybody else in the stadium, felt his team's performance was well, flawed.
"It's tremendously disappointing," said a visibly agitated Snyder, who answered one reporter's question without words, opting instead for a drawn-out and piecing stare. "That's why I'm angry."
"It's on me and the rest of our coaches to get (players) prepared for the things they need to do. We just haven't done that."
At the same time, no purple-clad player felt compelled to apologize for anything as that saying about never begrudging a win applies doubly to teams in K-State's situation. "We're not upset at all. At the end of the day, we got the W. Going 1-0 every day is what we want to do," wide receiver Aubrey Quarles said, and his sentiment was shared by his teammates.
The cause for the seemingly misplaced cheeriness wasn't hard to discern. On Saturday night, any lingering crumb of guesswork had been taken out. The Wildcats will be making their first postseason appearance since 2006 and they have Daniel Thomas and the career-high 269 yards and two touchdowns he ripped off against UNT to thank.
"I think I did pretty good," said Thomas, who moved into third place on the school's career rushing list. "I saw (Dunbar) go out and make a good few plays, so I wanted to make a few too."
In the end, he made more than a few. The senior's yardage total was the third highest for a game in school history and represented one of the few facets of K-State's day that impressed. Everything else, on the other hand, left Snyder and his staff scratching their heads.
Carson Coffman, who started the game at quarterback, looked only occassionaly comfortable, completing 9 of 22 passes including a touchdown, but the team's defense made the signal-caller look like a steady hand in trying times by allowing 459 total offensive yards. The issues, painstakingly enough for the program's veteran head coach, were familiar.
"First, we couldn't tackle anybody," Snyder said. "Then, we couldn't tackle anybody.
"We're just not getting the message across to the young people who play the game."
The Wildcats' final regular-season game featured 90 total points, a missed PAT, two record-setting rushing performances and back-to-back kickoff-return touchdowns. Sure it wasn't sound football, and defensive fundamentalists probably rolled their eyes early and often, but when they considered the alternative following the final whistle, K-State players could only shrug about what had taken place.
"We're just enjoying the win right now," Thomas said. "The defense knows they gave up a lot of points, but they're enjoying the win."
It was a game that Snyder's squad once trailed by as many as 13 first-quarter points. For most of the opening half, Wildcat defenders chased Dunbar like a pack of injured dogs limping after a Maserati. At times, the pursuit looked downright frivolous, and by the time the opening quarter came to a close, the junior running back had posted 161 yards and a per-carry average of 32. But while Dunbar cooled to room temperature as the game progressed, Thomas heated up and returned his counterpart's favor.
A 52-yard Thomas run sparked the Wildcats' first possession of the second half and set up a six-yard rushing score for quarterback Collin Klein, who checked into the game for the first time prior to the play. K-State, which led 21-20 at the break, continued to ride its star tailback down the stretch, racking up a string of 28 unanswered points that ended when fullback Braden Wilson ran untouched through the back of the end zone on the very next drive to put the Wildcats up 35-20.
"Offensively, we started to look better in the second half, but even now, we still have a long way to go," Thomas said. "We have just that one more game left and we have work to do."
Following back-to-back kickoff return scored by North Texas' Brelan Chancellor (93 yards) and Quarles (92 yards) late in the third quarter, the Mean Green pulled within eight. This time the score came off the arm of Chase Baine, who took over at quarterback when starter Riley Dodge suffered a neck injury. With 4:46 left to play, the sophomore reserve found Dunbar for a 17-yard touchdown reception off a shovel pass that capped a 77-yard drive, but even still, the pre-existing hole was simply too deep.
The Mean Green spent the remaining game clock down by just a touchdown and a two-point conversion, but failed to cross the 50-yard line in that span of time. A more than 50-yard prayer of a pass represented UNT's last play from scrimmage and was intercepted by K-State defensive back Ty Zimmerman to officially seal a game that carried feeling of finality through the entire final quarter.
"We were a little too relaxed during the game, so they came out and smacked us in the face at the beginning," wide receiver Chris Harper said "We're just glad we got the win in the end."
With the regular season now in their rear view, the Wildcats, 7-5 overall and 3-5 in conference play, now await a bowl invitation which will be announced in the days following next weekend's Big 12 Championship game.