MANHATTAN — The mood could have been somber, but instead it was almost defiant.
Kansas State had just suffered a gut-wrenching 20-18 loss to No. 14-ranked Oklahoma State on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Yet to a man, the Wildcats were focused more on the future than what could have been.
"Obviously a disappointing loss," K-State coach Chris Klieman said following a game in which the Wildcats led 12-0 at halftime, had two chances to take the lead or tie it in the fourth quarter, and held a prolific Oklahoma State offense under 300 yards. "Our kids battled, they fought (and) they played their tail off for 60 minutes.
"(We) missed some opportunities, and give Oklahoma State credit. They capitalized on some opportunities. But I'm really proud of how our guys fought this entire week."
With its second straight loss, K-State fell to 4-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big 12. Oklahoma State improved to 5-1 and 4-1.
Despite the disappointing outcome against Oklahoma State, the Wildcats' fight and determination were just what Klieman was looking for after an ugly performance the week before in a 37-10 road loss at West Virginia.
Unlike the West Virginia game, the Wildcats won time of possession against Oklahoma State, holding the ball for nearly 32 minutes. And they gave up just two plays of 20-plus yards.
But turnover margin, another staple for K-State in its four straight Big 12 victories, again proved problematic. Not only did the Wildcats lose that battle, 2-0, but both came at critical times in the fourth quarter.
After squandering their halftime advantage in a lost third quarter and trailing 13-12, the Wildcats were knocking on the door, well within field goal range, when they made their biggest mistake.
Will Howard had just hit tight end Sammy Wheeler on a 58-yard pass play to the Oklahoma State 27, and on third down and 3 from the 20, he appeared to pick up a first down, only to fumble on a quarterback keeper. OSU's Jason Taylor scooped it up at the 15 and ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown, and the Cowboys led 20-12 with 6:30 left.
Howard, a true freshman, rallied the Wildcats with a 60-yard scoring drive and finished it off on a 2-yard run with 2:08 left. But he lost the ball before getting off a two-point conversion pass that could have tied it.
K-State then came up with a big three-and-out, giving the ball back to the offense at the Wildcat 24 with 1:47 left and no timeouts. On the first play, Tre Sterling picked off a Howard pass downfield and Oklahoma State ran out the clock.
Yet no one was pointing fingers at Howard, who completed 10 of 21 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly had a career-high 125 yards rushing.
"That dude played his butt off today," center Noah Johnson said of Howard. "He battled (and) he put us on his back, really.
"As a true freshman, he was making plays all over the field. You can look at whatever you want (and) people can say whatever they want, but that dude battled and I'd battle with him any day of the week."
Klieman also praised Howard for his resilience.
"After they got the turnover and scored, I (told Howard), 'Just relax. You just put yourself in a tougher situation, but I'm counting on you getting us out of this situation.'
And he was really calm, and he put together a great drive, and we were able to get back and score. You always look at positives on things, and that's the thing I'm excited about."
Another reason to be excited was the performance by a defense that gave up over 500 yards last week at West Virginia, but held Oklahoma's high-powered attack to 256.
"(We) kept them off balance rushing the football, and then on defense we were able to get off the field and not sit out there for 90 plays like they want you to," Klieman said. "I think we were only out there maybe 55, 60 plays, which bodes well for us."
Senior linebacker Justin Hughes, who had six tackles, including one for loss, said the late turnovers by the offense, just made his unit more determined.
"They made a play," he said of Oklahoma State. "We can go out there and make opportunities for our offense just the same as they did for their offense and unfortunately scoring points.
"I see it as an opportunity for our defense go out there and prove who we are. Are we going to fold and just say the game's over because they scored, or are we going to go out there and get a stop and get our offense another opportunity to get back in this game?"
The Wildcats held All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, who was nicked up, to 31 yards on six carries. But backup LD Brown did rush for 110 yards on 15 attempts, including a 50-yarder in the third quarter that set up the Cowboys' lone offensive touchdown.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders was 14 of 23 passing for 108 yards and was sacked three times.
"Obviously, when the offense is struggling, that's one thing you have to do, is compensate for them and play better," said defensive end Wyatt Hubert, who had six tackles, a career-best 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. "Keep the playing field level, so just getting off the field (on) third down and getting them the ball as much as possible.
"If we would have tackled better, a lot of those big explosive plays wouldn't have happened and they wouldn't have gotten momentum in the second half, but I do think we played very well. Not saying that we didn't but we can always play better and we're never satisfied."
K-State turned in a dominating first-half defensive performance, and after settling for field goals on their first two trips to the red zone, the Wildcats finally broke through with a touchdown 37 seconds before intermission.
On third down and goal from the Oklahoma State 4-yard line, Howard found Phillip Brooks in the back of the end zone to make it 12-0. But a two-point conversion pass toward Brooks was incomplete, which would come back to haunt them.
Oklahoma State was without Tylan Wallace, the Big 12's leading receiver, but K-State held the Cowboys in check both against the pass and run, allowing just 83 yards total offense in the half.
Oklahoma State turned the momentum in the third quarter, sandwiching a pair of Alex Hale field goals around a 9-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Brennan Presley. Hale's 33-yarder with 58 seconds left in the period put the Cowboys in front for good, 13-12.
But K-State, which now has an open week before going on the road Nov. 21 to face Iowa State, was far more upbeat despite the loss than after the West Virginia game the week before.
"When you know you gave everything you've got and you know you prepared as hard as you could and you were focused throughout the whole game, a loss is going to sting," Johnson said. "But we're going to the page and we're going to attack this next week and we're moving on."
For his part, Klieman was focused on the bigger picture.
"We had our chances and we just didn't quite finish the job," he said. "But make no mistake. I'm pleased, because for us, the mission's the mission and we're improving as a football team.
"That's the thing I'm excited about. We got better today."