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November 29, 2012

Game Up Close: Golden opportunity

In his introductory press conference on Nov. 30, 1988, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder spoke about opportunity. Twenty-four years ago, a 49-year-old first-year coach knew he had the opportunity to orchestrate the greatest turnaround in college football history in the wake of futility. He succeeded.

And after a brief retirement stint and minor shortcomings along the way, Snyder, now 73, has the opportunity to do it again.

"The first time wasn't sudden," Snyder said on Tuesday. "I always said so many times, it wasn't like Las Vegas growing out of the sand. It just happened gradually over a period of time and I think that's what happened with these guys.

"It allows them to understand the value of daily, consistent, gradual, step-by-step improvement and my hope for all of them is that it plays over into their lives."

This is no newfound thought, however. The second coming of one of sports' most magical transformations was addressed to this year's senior class, which includes quarterback Collin Klein, when Snyder returned to the sidelines in 2009. The legendary coach knew this group had a chance to do something special things. And now they do.

Three years later, a rare opportunity has come to the forefront as K-State, who ranks No. 6 in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings, prepares to face No. 18 Texas on Saturday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium at 7 p.m. with the chance to win the Big 12 Conference title for the first time since 2003 at home on senior night.

No. 18 TEXAS at No. 6 K-STATE
After picking up over 220 yards on the ground against Iowa State two weeks ago, Texas' running game met its match against TCU on Thanksgiving Day. The Longhorns picked up just 86 yards on 33 carries in a loss that knocked them out of Big 12 title contention. They will look to get back to basics when they travel to Manhattan to face a K-State that got torched for 342 yards rushing at Baylor two weeks ago. Texas' primary back is Johnathan Gray, who leads the team with 654 yards in 2012, but their goal line back is Joe Bergeron, a player that has 562 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season. Malcolm Brown is also very talented and although he hasn't had much success in his limited playing time this year, quarterback Case McCoy also poses as a threat. With the Wildcats coming off a bye week, they will be out to prove the game in Waco was a fluke and continue to show their dominance by stopping the Longhorns rushing attack as they have the majority of their opponents.
Advantage: K-State
In their lone loss at Baylor two weeks ago, K-State seemed to abandoned their running game in crucial moments. Junior running back John Hubert was held to just 43 yards on 10 carries and quarterback Collin Klein had 17 carries for a season-low 39 yards and a touchdown. It was a dismal performance for team that relies so heavily on the run and it took them out of the national title hunt. The good news for the Wildcats is they are facing a Texas team that ranks 103rd in the country and last in the conference in rushing defense by giving up over 200 yards per game. It will be important for K-State to get the ground game early to keep Texas on their heels. Look for Hubert to have his first big game in over a month and for Klein to have his way on senior night against a young, but talented Longhorn defense.
Big Advantage: K-State
Texas coach Mack Brown announced Monday that junior Case McCoy would get the starting nod instead of the injured David Ash against K-State. In replacing the primary signal caller against TCU, McCoy completed 11 of 17 passes for 110 yards and an interception, but failed to lead the comeback. Bill Snyder claims there is not much disparity between the two quarterbacks, but Ash was the starter for a reason and this is not the ideal time for McCoy to get his first start of the season. McCoy found some success against the Wildcats last year, but this is a hungry defense that is out to avenge their loss Baylor. The crowd will also play a factor in this one as the fans will disrupt Texas' play calling. If the Longhorns strong offensive line can't protect him, it will be a long night for McCoy and this Texas offense, particularly in the passing game.
Big Advantage: K-State
The Baylor game is likely one that quarterback Collin Klein would like to forget, but he did have some success against the Bears. Yes, he did have a career-high three interceptions, but he still completed 27 of 51 attempts for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Harper also had a career-high 11 catches for 123 yards in that game as well. The two seniors are on point right now and they will look to make a big splash in their final home game together. This is also the final stage for Klein to make his case for the Heisman Trophy. Klein is the best quarterback the Longhorns will have seen in a month's time and it could take a while for them to adjust to it. If K-State can get the run game going like they are capable, Klein will be able to exploit this defense with play-action passes all night with a group of rested and healthy receivers.
Advantage: K-State
This is the one area that K-State has been the most consistent all year. They rank first nationally in kick returns and punt returns, placekicker Anthony Cantele has connected on all 56 PAT's and punter Ryan Doerr has been big when the Wildcats have needed him. With Tyler Lockett healthy, K-State becomes just that much more dangerous and if Texas elects to kick to him, look out. The only advantage the Longhorns have in this game is punting, something that could be a big weapon with McCoy starting at quarterback. K-State is a team that does all of the little things right and special teams is no exception.
Big Advantage: K-State
The stage is set for one of the most epic games in Bill Snyder Family Stadium history. K-State has the chance to win the Big 12 and clinch a BCS bowl birth in a primetime game at home on senior night. That's huge. Both teams are coming off an emotional loss, but the Wildcats have the momentum on their side. They have had an extra week to rest and will be healthy to compete at a high level. In addition, K-State has won the past four meetings between the two schools. Bill Snyder and Mack Brown are good friends and have the utmost respect for one another, but when it's time to play, they compete. And even though Texas is always a tough matchup, it's hard to believe Snyder won't have his team prepared and ready to take the field and win this big game on such a huge night.
Big Advantage: K-State
K-State BY 13.5

"It's great, one that doesn't come every often so we're definitely going to take full advantage of it as a team," senior middle linebacker and All-America candidate Arthur Brown said. "We have to recognize another opportunity lies before us and really give our all to it."

"It's huge, obviously," Klein added. "Get to 11 wins and to be a conference champion, there's definitely a lot on the line. But at the same time, we just have to kind of get back on track and kind of get clicking on the things that have brought us this far and the things that have made us successful."

For the majority of the season, the Wildcats, 10-1 overall and 7-1 in Big 12 play, have put itself in a position to succeed by being opportunistic in all facets of the game.

Their run-led offense methodically has worn down opposing defenses, their defense seldom allowed big plays and their special teams shined when it mattered most. K-State has limited their mistakes and punished opponents for their costly errors. It's the relentless preparation that has fueled success and it's how they've wound up with this opportunity.

"It's what puts you in that position that is what what's really important to me," Snyder quipped. "That's how young people grow, how they develop, how they learn to compete and take advantage of opportunities that exist for them how they embellish life's values and personal values. The life's lessons, the old cliché, are the most significant part for me.

"When all of those are in place, then these other opportunities present themselves."

Up to this point, K-State has done just that with their opportunistic nature.

Offensively, the Wildcats are deadly in red zone chances. In the team's last 122 trips inside its opponents' 20-yard line, K-State has scored 109 times, with 81 resulting in a touchdown and they rank fourth nationally in fewest penalties per game (3.55). Collectively, they lead the nation with the most offensive touchdowns, 87, since 1999, and on special teams, they rank first in the country in both kick returns and punt returns this season.

They also are atop the country in turnover margin, with 28 turnovers forced to just nine surrendered this season, and outscoring opponents 121-21 when they occur. Snyder's teams take advantage of what the opposition gives them.

But come Saturday, K-State's game against Texas has little to do with any of this. Sure, being opportunistic and exploiting weaknesses is a big reason why they have been successful and will be important to secure a victory, but this is beyond the X's and O's of football. This game is about taking a conference championship that's rightfully theirs.

Although it might happen, the Wildcats can't wait for the Longhorns to make a mistake. They tried that in the Baylor game and failed, resulting in a crushing 52-24 loss that knocked them out of national title contention.

"We definitely need to get back on track, there's definitely that mentality," Klein said. "I don't know if I would necessarily call it anger, but there's definitely a lot of emotion and build up that we have to get back on track.

"Our last two performances haven't been stellar. There's definitely a lot of motivation there."

Led by Klein, the Heisman Trophy candidate, the offense must dictate the game physically from start to finish and not allow Texas to gain any sort of momentum to quiet down the raucous crowd, while the defense needs to push past the Longhorns' offensive line and apply pressure to quarterback Case McCoy, who is starting in place of David Ash for the first time this season.

This game is about wanting it more taking advantage of the opportunity this game presents. And for Klein, it's the chance to replace the uncharacteristic performance in Waco, Texas two weeks ago when he threw a career-high three interceptions and rushing for a season-low 39 yards and put him back in the Heisman discussion.

This game is also about revenge. It's about avenging the loss to the Bears and showing up Texas' defense, which held K-State to just 120 yards on 56 plays a year ago.

"They shut us down last year," senior wide receiver Chris Harper said. "If our defense didn't play well, we would have lost that game.

"We have a type of revenge for two different reasons so I think we will definitely."

But as Klein said, there is a lot of emotion that comes with this game. This contest is big for a lot of reasons and is easy for one to get nervous for what's at stake. It's the norm.

"Do I get nervous? Sure," said Snyder during the team's bye week. "It's like I tell our players, I mean, that's OK. When the gun goes off then, like a player, they go out and they get some contact and that kind of goes away and you get into it.

"I think everybody gets it. I'm sure it does not appear that way. I probably on game day like I appear right now, but that doesn't mean that you don't have some enthusiasm and some excitement about it and some nervousness, surely."

In all due respect to the significant games in the past, this is the biggest home contest in school history. K-State has a chance to match the program's highest win total in history, win the Big 12 Conference title and clinch a BCS bowl birth on their home turf while saluting a storied senior class.

These are the opportunities that Snyder envisioned when he accepted the coaching position back in 1988 and these are the games in which he was meant to coach.

There are very few times in life where someone is awarded a second chance to do something awe-inspiring. Snyder has that now. The opportunity he spoke of before his return in 2009 has arrived and the work to get there is complete.

It's a matter of putting the foot on the gas and taking what's genuinely theirs. If that ensues, then the waters will most certainly be calm.

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