At the beginning of the season, many around college football wondered if the 70-year-old Bill Snyder could somehow resurrect the Kansas State football program the same way he did when he took over the program 20 years ago, in 1989.
Back then, Sports Illustrated had labeled the Wildcats program “America’s most hapless team”—and they were. For three straight seasons leading up to Snyder coming to the Little Apple that is Manhattan, KS, the Wildcats didn’t win a game.
Under Snyder, that all changed.
In Snyder’s second season, he won five games, something that had only occurred once in K-State’s previous 17 seasons. Then in 1993, Snyder guided his team to only its second nine-win season ever and began a streak of 11 straight bowl appearances.
During each of those 11 seasons that ended in a trip to a bowl for the Wildcats, Snyder’s main objective was to beat Nebraska. Because if you beat the Cornhuskers, it meant you had a great shot to win the conference.
The Cornhuskers, led by the legendary Tom Osborne through 1997 and then by longtime Osborne assistant Frank Solich, won three national championships and eight league titles during that 11-year stretch.
However, by the end of Snyder’s run in 2003, the Wildcats had surpassed the Cornhuskers atop the Big 12 North, and Snyder had pulled off the greatest reclamation project in major college sports history.
Then in 2004, with the departure of Snyder at K-State and the ouster of Solich at Nebraska, both the Wildcats and Cornhuskers began a trek down the path to mediocrity. Each team has been struggling to regain its status atop the Big 12 ever since.
Both K-State and Nebraska have since fired the coaches they brought in back in 2004. Instead, each has turned, once again, to a former coach familiar with each program’s tradition in an effort to return their teams to prominence once again atop the Big 12 North.
This Saturday in Lincoln, these two teams face off in a game that means more than any of their meetings the past six seasons. At stake in this game, just like old times, is the right to represent the North division in the Big 12 Championship game in Dallas on Dec. 5.
For Snyder and his Wildcats, they need this game not only to secure a spot in the Big 12 Championship game, but they need this win just to become bowl eligible. Should they lose, their Cinderella season will come to an abrupt end.
On Saturday, that additional motivation will be important to a team long on effort but short on talent. K-State ranks dead last in the conference in passing offense and relies heavily on its running game and special teams to score points. In fact, the Wildcats’ biggest threat and most talented player is kick returner Brandon Banks.
Banks, who stands only 5’7” and weighs a mere 150 pounds, has blazing speed and is probably the best kick returner in the country. His four kick returns for touchdowns lead the nation, while his 1,077 return yards rank him second.
Nebraska, on the other hand, enters the game riding a three-game winning streak that includes an impressive 10-3 victory over Oklahoma two weeks ago in Lincoln. After dismantling the Jayhawks in Lawrence a week ago, the Cornhuskers will be geared up for their final home game of the season in front of a sold-out Memorial Stadium.
Nagurski Trophy finalist Ndamukong Suh leads a defense that ranks third in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 11 points per game. Suh and fellow defensive tackle Jared Crick have combined for 33 tackles for loss, and Crick ranks fifth in the conference with nine sacks.
If the Wildcats want to be successful on offense, they will have to find a way to contain Suh and Crick.
The Keys to Victory
* The Wildcats will need to make big plays on special teams and possibly get another touchdown out of Banks.
* Snyder needs to reach into his old bag of tricks and find plays that neutralize the Cornhuskers' overwhelming superiority on defense when K-State has the ball. Mainly, they need to find ways to get the ball into the hands of Banks in space.
* The defense needs to do what Iowa State did to the Cornhuskers earlier this season...force turnovers—a lot of turnovers.
* The special teams unit must not allow Banks to have a big day in the return game.
* Roy Helu must run the ball without putting it on the ground, as he’s done recently since sustaining a shoulder injury a few weeks ago.
* Whether it’s Zac Lee or freshman Cody Green at quarterback, they must make good decisions in the passing game and not force any plays that could cause turnovers. Niles Paul has played well of late and should be able to make big plays against the K-State secondary.
* On defense, Suh and company simply need to continue what they’ve done all season...dominate the line of scrimmage and limit the number of big plays against them.
Barring some major collapse on defense or special teams by the Cornhuskers, Nebraska should be able to handle their business in front of Husker Nation and millions more on ESPN.
However, if K-State’s Banks can find a way to make some big plays on special teams, and the defense can force turnovers like Iowa State did in Lincoln four weeks ago, Snyder’s team could find themselves booking a trip to Dallas.
Kansas State 10