By: D. Scott Fritchen
For No. 10 Kansas State, it is. When the Wildcats head to No. 3 TCU meet to decide the Big 12 Championship, they have their chance to reach the top of the mountain in this season’s conference only Top 10 competition in title games. They will get their chance to silence the doubters once and for all. And they might very well bring the Big 12 championship trophy back to Manhattan.
“It would mean everything to me,” said the sixth-year senior nose guard Eli Huggins says.
Selected fifth from the Big 12, K-State is the No. 10 team in the top 25 of the college football playoffs going into their first Big 12 title game in 19 years — a remarkable rise for an overlooked team that has had early success -season opener with a win at then-no. 6 Oklahoma and got stronger as the season progressed.
However, K-State was considered the underdog in many of its games and is the underdog again on Saturday.
“You know they’ve been challenged pretty badly this year,” said the K-State head coach Chris Kleman says. “Our boys have really risen, especially when people doubt them. They’ve risen to the top and I can’t say enough about our team leaders and captains because they control this dressing room and this player-led team has taken charge. I think that’s really cool.”
K-State fans remember the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game — a 35-7 win over undefeated and ranked No. 1 Oklahoma at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium — that caused chills and mass celebrations across the Purple Nation.
Now the Wildcats, 9-3 overall and 7-2 in the Big 12, have a chance to topple another undefeated opponent in this Big 12 title game. The Horned Frogs, 12-0 and 9-0, are the first Big 12 team to go 12-0 since Texas in 2009.
K-State, which won the 2012 Big 12 title without participating in a league title game (the Big 12 paused league title games from 2011 to 2016), has its first chance in 10 years to hit double-digit winnings.
“We’ve been working on this for 12 months now,” he runs back Two Vaughns says. “We set out to achieve this goal back in January. All the sweat and tears lead to this.
Undoubtedly, there were doubts, although all three of K-State’s losses have come against teams at the national level.
K-State suffered a 17-10 home loss to Tulane, who is 18th in the CFP Top 25 and playing for the American Conference Championship. K-State suffered a 38-28 loss at then-No. 8 TCU on Oct. 22, then fell to No. 24 Texas, 34-27, two weeks later.
“We definitely have a little chip on our shoulders and something to prove,” says Huggins. “I don’t want to say I’m glad we lost the first time (against TCU) but it’s hard to beat a team twice so I think we’re in a good place.”
TCU is the first team since 1975 to win seven straight games by 10 points or fewer. After their first meeting against TCU, K-State ended their regular season by winning four of five games. The Wildcats won their four games by 48, 28, 17 and 20 points, including last Saturday’s 47-27 win over Kansas to earn a spot in the championship game.
“We’ve done some really good things, and being able to carry the confidence that we’ve grown and built is really the biggest thing,” said Quarterback Will Howard, who got his first action of the season in the first game against TCU. “We know we’ve done them before when these pieces are out there, and we can do them again.”
K-State led TCU 28-10 in the second quarter before the Horned Frogs scored the final 28 points of the game against a Wildcats squad that sustained injuries on both sides of the ball during the game.
The Wildcats used three different quarterbacks as starters Adrian Martinez and backup Howard were each sent to the sidelines. Howard eventually returned and finished the day 13 of 20 for 225 yards and two touchdowns and one interception during his first action of the season.
“I felt sick after that game,” Senior Center said Hayden Gillum says. “Any loss isn’t fun, but the one I left and I was like, ‘We left a lot out there.’ I think a lot of guys had the same taste in their mouths.
“We know we owe these guys something and we can give them more than we did in the first round.”
Klieman warns that K-State cannot “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to facing TCU a second time.
“There’s a reason we’re here and they’re here,” says Klieman. “You have to adjust the plan, but you try not to make too much of it… our players and their players know who they’re playing against.”
Howard finished the regular season as one of the hottest quarterbacks in the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his five games. Time and time again, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior has found his targets in pressure situations. Malik Knowles has 46 catches for 679 yards and two touchdowns, as well as five rushes for 114 yards and three points.
Vaughn has 1,295 rushing yards and 348 receiving yards this season. He had more than 1,300 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards last season. ESPN Stats & Information reports that only Christian McCaffrey has had multiple seasons with 1,300 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards under Power 5 running backs over the past 15 seasons.
K-State has averaged 40.2 points over their past five games, the fifth-highest points by any Power 5 school at this stretch.
“When I came into the game at TCU, it was my first time playing this year, but now that I’m out there I’ve settled into a bit of a rhythm,” says Howard. “I’m a little bit more into it now and definitely have a few more reps on the ones so I’m feeling good about it.
“I feel like we’re as confident as we could possibly be.”
The Wildcats face a TCU defense that ranks fourth among the Big 12 in scoring defense (24.5), fifth in overall defense (383.5), fourth in passing defense (238 .7) and ranks fifth in rushing defense (144.8).
“It was interesting to even do some research on our own how we’ve grown over the year — so have you,” offensive coordinator Collin Klein said. “They are doing some different things than they were six weeks ago. Thank you. Your defense is flying around right now. It’s going to be a fun challenge.”
TCU topped K-State 495-390 in their first meeting.
“They play great teams in these big games, it’s going to be a game of inches, and if that’s a first-down game, a second-down game or a third-down game on the third, fourth, or fifth drives of the game is, we have to do our best for every inch,” says Klein. “That could be the difference.”
Just as Howard didn’t start the first game of the season for K-State, neither did TCU quarterback Max Duggan start the season as a starter.
However, K-State faces one of its biggest challenges of the year when it comes up against Duggan, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Duggan leads the league in completion percentage (66.6), passing yards (3,070), passing touchdowns (29), and passing efficiency (171.3).
Wide receiver Quentin Johnson, a 6-foot-4 NFL prospect, has 49 catches for 764 yards and five touchdowns.
Running back Kendre Miller’s 1,260 rushing yards is the most by a TCU player in seven years, and he has had a touchdown in 13 straight games, the longest streak since LaDainian Tomlinson had a touchdown in a school record 15 straight contests.
TCU ranks first in the Big 12 in attack count (41.3), first in total attacks (473.3), third in passing offense (274.8) and fourth Place in rushing offense (198.5). The Horned Frogs are with Tennessee at the top of the FBS with 13 offensive touchdowns from at least 50 yards.
“They just have great playmakers in the receiver position and their tight ends are playmakers and Duggan makes it possible and Miller is a stud,” the defensive coordinator said Joe Klanderman says. “It’s a delicate balance. That’s going to be the whole game about chess.”
The Horned Frogs are up against a K-State defense that ranks first among the Big 12 in scoring defense (19.4), second in overall defense (357.3), second in passing defense (214.1) and fourth in rushing defense (143.17).
K-State kept every FBS opponent below their point average at the time the teams played.
“We’re tough,” linebacker Austin Moore says. “We are battle-hardened. We had some adversity but we overcame it and we’re the toughest we’ve been all year.”
Klanderman laments the first game against the Horned Frogs, in which several key players were injured. The Wildcats have only allowed 15 second-half points in their last five games but failed to untie the Horned Frogs in the second half in October.
“Back then (that season) we were still trying to find ourselves a little bit,” says Klanderman. “There was a stretch in that game when we were playing pretty well and then it went sideways and we lost Deuce Green, Julius Brents and Khalid Dukeand it became a rash of things there for a minute.
“We have an experienced group of guys and I think they will react in big moments.”
Excitement runs high as the Wildcats prepare for this opportunity to bring home a title.
“I’ve seen pictures of students getting their tickets from Bramlage and all sorts of things on Twitter about fans pulling everything together to go to the game,” says Vaughn. “We really appreciate it. We only go as far as our fans and everyone who loves us and flows into us. They did a great job pouring into us. We’re really excited to get out there and play in front of them down in Arlington.”
K-State is virtually guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. A Big 12 title would be a great reward after a tough regular season. A win would certainly further cement this team alongside some of the most memorable squads in school history.
“I’m pissed off,” says Vaughn. “When I woke up on Monday, everything had to be revved up. That’s what you worked for. You mustn’t slow down.