HOUSTON — Kansas State was one of the nation's hottest football teams at the end of the regular season, and that remains the case today following a 33-28 victory over Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl.
The Wildcats flexed their muscles against a SEC opponent in front of 68,412 at NRG Stadium on Wednesday and showed a national viewing audience their strong finish was no fluke.
They won six of their final seven games and now head into 2017 with all kinds of momentum.
K-State (9-4) certainly ended 2016 with a bang. This was arguably its best performance of the season. Texas A&M (8-5) was favored and benefited from a noticeable crowd advantage, even with approximately 15,000 K-State supporters in attendance.
None of it mattered. The Wildcats were too good, on this day.
Junior quarterback Jesse Ertz amassed more than 250 yards of offense and scored three touchdowns to lead K-State to its first bowl victory since 2013 and its second bowl victory since 2002.
Trevor Knight and Josh Reynolds made a late push, but it wasn't enough.
K-State entered the Texas Bowl having lost seven of eight postseason games, but it felt like things were going to be different early on in this one.
The bugaboo in most of those previous losses was slow starts, with early deficits forcing the Wildcats to abandon their methodical approach on offense and try to play catch up. That seemed like it might once again be a problem when Texas A&M marched 75 yards in 10 plays to score the game's first touchdown, but it wasn't an issue at all.
Little fazed K-State on this night. The Wildcats kept their cool and responded to Keith Ford's opening score with a 79-yard touchdown pass from Jesse Ertz to Byron Pringle. It was unlike any play they pulled off during the regular season, as Ertz hit Pringle in stride as he beat double coverage down the sideline.
The only other explosive pass of the year came on a short slant that Pringle turned into an 83-yard gain.
This connection went down as the second longest pass play of the season and the second longest pass play in K-State bowl history, trailing only an 88-yard touchdown pass from Michael Bishop to Darnell McDonald in the 98 Alamo Bowl.
The quick-strike touchdown shifted momentum K-State's way and gave the Wildcats confidence to play with the Aggies.
On Texas A&M's next drive, Kendall Adams intercepted a pass intended for Christian Kirk, which gave K-State quality field position. Eight plays later, Ertz stiff-armed his way into the end zone on a five-yard keeper.
The Aggies answered back with a touchdown pass from Trevor Knight to Ricky Seals-Jones to take a 14-13 lead, but the Wildcats closed out the half with 10 straight points.
K-State was a dominant running team near the end of the regular season, averaging more than 290 rushing yards over its final six games, but the Wildcats used a different strategy in the first half of this game, with Ertz completing 9 of 11 passes for 126 yards.
Perhaps some of that was due to the absence of top running back Alex Barnes. The redshirt freshman averaged 7.9 yards per touch this season, but he watched the Texas Bowl from the sideline in sweats.
Or maybe K-State came up with a new set of plays to beat Texas A&M.
The Wildcats reached into their bag of tricks for their final touchdown of the second quarter when receiver Dominique Heath took an end-around 52 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest running play in K-State bowl history.
Things were mostly back and forth from there. The Wildcats whiffed on some touchdown chances, but did well enough to take a 33-21 lead on a touchdown run from Ertz with 9 minutes remaining.
Texas A&M answered with a touchdown pass to Reynolds and had an opportunity to take the lead in the final minutes, but K-State's defense held strong.