Just another step? Kansas State's upset at Oklahoma speaks volumes
NORMAN, Okla. -- Collin Klein spent about 10 minutes sitting behind a table answering questions from reporters. His expression rarely changed, nor did his message.
"It was a step," he said of the No. 15 Wildcats' 24-19 upset of No. 6 Oklahoma Saturday.
Never mind that Kansas State had just begun Big 12 play by defeating the conference's prohibitive preseason favorite. Never mind that the Wildcats had become just the fourth opponent in Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops' 14-year tenure to beat the Sooners at Owen Field, or that Stoops' teams had previously gone 14-0 at home against ranked foes, or the obvious revenge factor given how Oklahoma throttled Klein's team, 58-17, a year earlier in Manhattan.
As Klein got up to leave, a reporter made one last-ditch effort to get a reaction out of Kansas State's quarterback.
"So -- how excited are you, man?"
Klein gave the slightest hint of a grin. Then he responded: "It's just another step."
That suffices for excitement from a group of players who take their cues from a white-haired, 72-year-old future Hall of Famer who showed the nation, yet again, why we should never doubt his squads. In his first stint as Kansas State's coach, from 1989-2005, Bill Snyder engineered the greatest makeover in college football history, lifting the Wildcats from the dregs of Division I to the brink of a national championship. Four years into his return engagement, K-State is, at the very least, a bona fide Big 12 championship contender.
Behind the steady, patient rushing attack of Klein (17 carries, 79 yards) and running back John Hubert (23 carries, 130 yards) and a stifling defense that thoroughly rattled veteran Sooners quarterback Landry Jones, Kansas State gutted out a typically unflashy but effective victory. Known to this point more for his legs than his arm, Klein took advantage of his protection and completed three passes for 60 yards during a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive to take a 24-13 lead. While Jones responded with a touchdown drive of his own, Wildcats linebacker Justin Tuggle batted down Jones' two-point conversion attempt, and Klein and Co. ran out the remaining 4:09 in the game.
"They were excited about it," Snyder conceded of his players' postgame reaction. "They also handled themselves. It's not like they've never been here before. There was a confidence going into the ballgame. They felt like this could happen."
The home team, Oklahoma, did not play with confidence. Jones, in particular, made the kind of mistakes that have driven Sooners fans mad these past four years, even as he's broken nearly every program passing record. On Oklahoma's first drive, he threw behind wide-open tight end Brannon Green in the end zone, forcing the Sooners to settle for a field goal. Kansas State scored its first touchdown when Tuggle sacked and stripped Jones on his own two-yard line, providing linebacker Jarrell Childs with an easy path for a score. On Oklahoma's next possession, Jones drove all the way to the Wildcats' one-yard line, but backup quarterback Blake Bell -- the centerpiece of the Sooners' "Belldozer" goal-line package -- fumbled away the snap, wiping out an all but certain score.
Jones also telegraphed an interception to K-State safety Ty Zimmerman late in the third quarter, setting up the Wildcats' go-ahead touchdown drive.
"It's just bad football," said Stoops. "You give up three turnovers and don't get one, you're going to lose against a good team every time."
Oklahoma, which went 10-3 last season, garnered a preseason top five ranking, but there were cracks in the armor even then. Stoops had suspended a trio of returning receivers, and two veteran offensive linemen (center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans) were shelved by injuries. Then the Sooners struggled to put away UTEP in their opener. Few outside the state saw their 69-13 rout of Florida A&M, and they had a bye last week. This was their first chance to prove they were deserving of their lofty ranking.
But it's clear something still isn't right with Jones, whose play began to deteriorate late last season following a season-ending injury to now-departed All-America receiver Ryan Broyles. Only one veteran receiver, Kenny Stills, is back. Jones found a new favorite target Saturday night, freshman Sterling Shepard (seven catches, 108 yards), but until his final scoring drive, Jones mostly struggled to get into rhythm.
"I noticed it in the first half," Kansas State defensive end Adam Davis said when asked if Jones seemed "spooked." "He was jabbing his feet whenever we got too close."
Klein, meanwhile, has rarely looked more comfortable as a passer. He came in completing nearly 73 percent of his passes. He didn't quite hit that mark Saturday, finishing 13-of-21 for 149 yards, but he never had a turnover and was never sacked. If Klein, who rushed for an FBS-quarterback record 27 touchdowns last season, wasn't already in the Heisman conversation, he certainly should be now.
"Their offense is very sophisticated, way beyond the normal eye could ever imagine," said Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. "They are persistent and they execute very well and that makes them who they are."
The Wildcats are a team that may well rise into the top 10 next week, not that Snyder or his players would ever admit caring about that number. Their goal is a Big 12 championship, something Snyder -- for all his considerable achievements -- has only accomplished once, in 2003. That year the Wildcats were a modest 10-3 in the regular season but stunned undefeated Oklahoma 35-7 in the conference championship game. It's also the only previous time Snyder defeated his protégé Stoops.
Now the conference plays a round-robin schedule, and it's shaping up to be quite the grind for all participants. No. 8 West Virginia, No. 12 Texas, No. 17 TCU and undefeated Baylor and Texas Tech all await the Wildcats down the road. But they couldn't ask for a better start than winning in Norman.
"It gives us confidence and momentum," said Hubert, who has run for at least 100 yards in three of his first four games. "We just want to rest and keep getting better. We are one of those teams that can be in the top five easily, but we like to be underdogs."
They might not be underdogs very often going forward, but they won't likely garner the favorite label just yet. Texas is a more traditional pick. Newcomer West Virginia is flashier.
The Wildcats? They're just focused on taking another step.