ARLINGTON, Texas – Losing the final game of any season can mean a disappointing off-season that is longer than the calendar indicates.
Kansas State had a remarkable 2011 season. As chronicled many times, the Wildcats were predicted to finish eighth in the Big 12 Conference; they finished second, with a 10-2 regular-season record.
All of the accomplishments and the back slaps faded with the outcome of Friday night's Cotton Bowl. Kansas State (10-3) was trying for its first bowl victory since 2002 but the Wildcats made uncharacteristic mistakes that allowed the Arkansas (11-2) to take early control early on the way to a 29-16 victory at Cowboys Stadium.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, in the second year of his second tenure in Manhattan, was lauded for the Wildcats' surprising season, took the blame for failing to end the Southeastern Conference's four-game winning streak over the Big 12 in the Cotton Bowl.
"We got off to an awfully bad start and we couldn't overcome the damage," said Snyder, noting penalties, turnovers and dropped passes that contributed to the defeat. "We just weren't ready to play and that's my responsibility. I just didn't have 'em ready."
Kansas State's second possession was a snap shot of the Wildcats' woes. An illegal shift penalty negated a 19-yard Collin Klein run that would have moved K-State into Arkansas territory. That was followed by a sack, a holding penalty, a false start and another sack. Klein fumbled on that sack, setting up an Arkansas field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Asked about the Wildcats' offensive woes, Klein posed and shook his head before answering.
"The blame falls on all of our shoulders," Klein said. "Collectively we couldn't put it together. It was a combination of multiple things. … I'll stick up for (Snyder). We had our chances and didn't finish the job."
Nigel Malone, whose two-point defensive extra point provided a spark and prevented an Arkansas runaway, said Snyder wasn't the reason for the loss.
"In no way would I put any of the blame on coach Snyder," he said. "At the end of the day, coaches coach and players play. What you saw on the field was the result of what we did as players."
In a game with nearly 150 plays, two made the difference for Arkansas, which gave the Southeastern Conference a four-game winning streak over the Big 12 in the Cotton Bowl.
"One or two plays go different, it's a different game," Malone said. "That's the name of the game. A couple of plays can make the difference."
After Arkansas' Dylan Breeding flipped the field with a 63-yard punt (that the Wildcats' Tramaine Thompson mistakenly fielded inside his five), the Razorbacks' Joe Adams provided a highlight that will be replayed in future Cotton Bowls.
Adams, who had returned three punts for touchdowns, made it four with his 51-yard return that gave Arkansas a 10-0 lead. His return actually covered nearly 100 yards - he fielded the punt in front of the Arkansas bench and finished going up the K-State sideline.
"We knew he could make you miss him," Snyder said. "We talked about keeping him from bouncing the ball outside … and he bounced the ball outside. Telling the players to make it happen doesn't make it happen. "
When Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson connected with Jarius Wright, his favorite big-play target, for a 45-yard touchdown with 4:15 remaining in the first half, Arkansas was poised to take a 20-0 lead.
Kansas State's Raphael Guidry had other ideas. He blocked the extra point kick – his fifth of the year. Malone picked up the loose ball and returned it for two points.
"I thought that play gave us a boost," said Malone, whose defensive two-pointer was the first in Cotton Bowl history.
Leading 19-2 with the ball on its own 13, 1:27 remaining and Kansas State out of timeouts, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino called three pass plays. Wilson was sacked on the third one. He fumbled and Kansas State's Ryan Mueller recovered at the Razorbacks' 13. Klein connected with Andre McDonald on a 3-yard touchdown pass 26 seconds before halftime to make it 19-9.
Kansas State had twice rallied from 10-point deficits to win this season. When the Wildcats took the second half kickoff and drove 60 yards and seven plays for Klein's 6-yard TD run, Arkansas' lead was trimmed to 19-16.
Wilson, who finished 20-of-31 for 216 yards, hit Cobi Hamilton for a 9-yard TD pass late in the third quarter that restored Arkansas' lead to double digits. With the offense inconsistent, it was too much to overcome.
Arkansas' defense was considered flawed. The Razorbacks were 80th against the run and they came into their Cotton Bowl without defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, who resigned following the season. When the Hogs last played in Cowboys Stadium, they beat Texas A&M but allowed 628 yards.
However, in three games this season Arkansas displayed the ability to shut down an opponent. New Mexico (297), Mississippi State (211) and South Carolina (207). That defense showed up Friday night. The Razorbacks limited Kansas State to 260 yards. In particular, the Wildcats' running game was stifled - 87 yards on 40 attempts. With the running game ineffective, the Razorbacks' pass rush produced seven sacks.
The Razorbacks were 13th nationally in passing offense and Kansas State had struggled to stop the Big 12's top two passing attacks.
"I thought we did a great job defensively," Snyder said.
As the awards platform was being put together on the Cowboys Stadium field and the Razorbacks started their celebration, the Wildcats left the field in their traditional way – arms locked together, moving as a unit. A fitting illustration of a team that accomplished more than expected and should be lauded even if the final game was a loss.
"It's disappointing that we couldn't send the seniors out with a victory," said Klein, who completed 16-of-30 passes for 173 yards and gained 42 yards on 24 attempts. "This isn't how we wanted the season to end. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of this team and this family."
Cotton Bowl Attendance
The attendance figures for the Cotton Bowl since moving to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
|2009||Texas Tech vs. Mississippi||88,175|
|2010||Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi||77,928|
|2011||Texas A&M vs. LSU||83,514|
|2012||Kansas State vs. Arkansas||80,956|
Kansas State Bowl History (Record: 6-9)
|Jan. 6, 2012||Cotton Bowl-Arkansas 29, Kansas St. 16|
|Dec. 30, 2010||Pinstripe Bowl-Syracuse 36, Kansas St. 34|
|Dec. 28, 2006||Texas Bowl-Rutgers 37, Kansas St. 10|
|Jan. 2, 2004||Fiesta Bowl-Ohio St. 35, Kansas St. 28|
|Dec. 27, 2002||Holiday Bowl-Kansas St. 34, Arizona St. 27|
|Dec. 29, 2001||Insight.com Bowl-Syracuse 26, Kansas St. 3|
|Jan. 1, 2001||Cotton Bowl-Kansas St. 35, Tennessee 21|
|Dec. 29, 1999||Holiday Bowl-Kansas St. 24, Washington 20|
|Dec. 29, 1998||Alamo Bowl-Purdue 37, Kansas St. 34|
|Dec. 31, 1997||Fiesta Bowl-Kansas St. 35, Syracuse 18|
|Jan. 1, 1997||Cotton Bowl-Brigham Young 19, Kansas St. 15|
|Dec. 29, 1995||Holiday Bowl-Kansas St. 54, Colorado St. 21|
|Dec. 25, 1994||Aloha Bowl-Boston College 12, Kansas St. 7|
|Dec. 29, 1993||Copper Bowl-Kansas St. 52, Wyoming 17|
|Dec. 11, 1982||Independence Bowl-Wisconsin 14, Kansas St. 3|