AMES, Iowa — Late-game letdowns weren’t new to the Kansas State Wildcats in 2018.
In heartbreaking road losses to Baylor and TCU, a play here or there could have changed the outcomes dramatically.
What set Saturday night’s devastating 42-38 setback against Iowa State apart, aside from the manner in which it happened, was the finality of it all.
For the first time in nine years, the Wildcats will spend bowl season at home. And to think, they were just 12 1/2 minutes away from making it happen.
“To finish the year 5-7, it feels empty,” junior running back Alex Barnes said after the Wildcats squandered a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter. “It’s not near where we wanted to be.
“It’s not where we were supposed to be. That’s the hardest pill to swallow about it.”
Barnes and the K-State offense had one of their better games of the season against the Cyclones, racking up 428 yards and five touchdowns. The defense, while giving up 493 total yards, came up with several big stops and three turnovers that led directly to 21 points.
Barnes rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown and Skylar Thompson threw for 183 yards and three scores, while junior cornerback Kevion McGee set up a pair of touchdowns with his first two career interceptions.
But in the end it wasn’t enough.
“It’s just frustrating,” said Thompson whose fumble on a quarterback sack with 8:34 left was returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Iowa State’s Mike Rose, cutting the K-State lead to three points. “I wanted to win today and get us to a bowl game and it’s just tough to swallow.”
Even legendary K-State coach Bill Snyder, who at age 79 again faces a decision on whether to return next year, had trouble processing the loss.
“I’ve never really lost a ballgame that way,” he said. “I would have to dissect it.
“I can’t tell you what my feelings are right know; I’m not sure I know. I’ve never been in that situation before.”
What’s certain is that at 5-7 overall and 3-6 in the Big 12, the Wildcats just suffered their worst record since Snyder came out of a three-year retirement in 2009.
The ‘09 team went 6-6, but didn’t have enough victories against Football Bowl Subdivision teams to be eligible for the postseason. In 2015, the Wildcats finished at 6-7, but won their last three regular-season games to become eligible before dropping their bowl game.
This year, the team also needed to finish with three straight victories and nearly got there, knocking off Kansas and Texas Tech and holding a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against Iowa State.
“I’m very blessed and very thankful for my career at Kansas State, but pissed at the way that it finished,” said all-Big 12 offensive tackle Dalton Risner. “That’s embarrassing.
“I’ll be the class that’s remembered for not making a bowl game, but I gave it my all this season, I promise you that, and I promise the team did as well.”
The Wildcats battled through an inordinate number of injuries, especially on defense, and at quarterback where Thompson and backup Alex Delton seldom were healthy at the same time.
“Nobody gave up this year and this year was probably one of the toughest seasons I’ve been a part of as a football player in my life, as far as the ups and downs and the adversity we faced, and we just kept on fighting,” Thompson said. “We fell short and that sucks, but I’m really proud of this team for how we fought this year and we’ve got to keep our heads up and life goes on.”
That, in a nutshell was Snyder’s postgame locker-room message to his team.
“I just told them how much I understood that it was a painful loss,” he said. “But I also shared with them (that) life can be tough, too.
“It’s a life lesson and we need to profit from it. It’s always about how you respond, and it’s going to be important for them to understand how to respond from this.”
Regardless of whether he returns next season or not, Snyder understands as well as any of his players the frustration of missing out on a bowl.
“That doesn’t happen very often around here, so it’s dramatically disappointing,” he said. “It is disappointing, but just how we lost this ballgame is what really has captured my emotions right now.”
Barnes’ return uncertain
Snyder isn’t the only person facing a decision regarding his future in the coming weeks.
Barnes had a breakout junior season in which he rushed for 1,355 yards and could forgo his senior year and make himself available for the NFL draft.
“Who knows?” Barnes said when asked if he’d be back. “I’m not 100 percent sure.
“A lot of people I’ve got to talk to.”
With his 184 yards against Iowa State, Barnes moved into fourth place on K-State’s single-season rushing chart. He also moved from seventh to fifth on the school career rushing list with 2,616.
“He’s a wonderful effort guy,” Snyder said of Barnes. “He’s a very talented player — runs hard, runs well, a complete player.
“Probably what’s as significant as anything is the fact that — I’ve said this a hundred times — he practices like he plays. That’s what makes him better.”