K-State looks to rally the troops
It was just over two weeks ago, following a heartbreaking two-point home loss to Oklahoma State, that Kansas State coach Chris Klieman stopped just short of declaring a moral victory.
The tone was vastly different Saturday in Ames, Iowa, and for good reason.
It was not pretty and there was not much positive to take from a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 17-ranked Iowa State. And what's worse, there were hints of discord within the Wildcats' ranks.
"You're not going to find many silver linings," Klieman said of the Wildcats' third straight loss, which dropped them to 4-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12. "To me, any time you have a loss, it's a setback.
"Whether you lose 20-18 or 45-0, it's still a loss. All you can do is go back to work and continue to try and improve."
That now is the challenge for a K-State team that since the Oklahoma State game not only dealt with the absence of three starters — wide receiver Malik Knowles and linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes — because of COVID-19 and contact tracing, but also saw a 10th player this year enter the NCAA transfer portal.
"After the game, (Klieman) was disappointed for sure," said senior linebacker Cody Fletcher, who along with sophomore Daniel Green replaced Sullivan and Hughes in the lineup. "But his message for us was to come together off the field.
"We need everybody. We can't have people quitting on us, leaving on us. He felt our effort was there, but mentally we just weren't there."
Klieman delivered a similar message after a season-opening loss to Arkansas State, and the Wildcats responded with an impressive come-from-behind victory at No. 3 Oklahoma. They then beat Texas Tech, TCU and Kansas in succession, moving to 4-0 in the league and climbing to No. 16 in the national rankings.
But then came 37-10 clunker at West Virginia, which was why Klieman was heartened by an improved effort in the 20-18 loss to Oklahoma State.
Now, with the same issues — COVID-19 and player defections — bubbling to the surface, Klieman again is looking to rally the troops.
"(It happens) with great leadership, and guys stepping up and guys taking their ownership," he said. "It should sting, and it hurts. It has to.
"But we've got to move on and get ready to go on Monday, because we have another tough road trip to Baylor."
Freshman running back Deuce Vaughn, the only other player to address the media following the Iowa State game, echoed his coach's sentiments.
"We had some guys leave and some things like that," Vaughn said. "We're just making sure we take control with the dudes that we have right now.
"Just getting back to work and not taking anything for granted coming up this next week, because we only have two games left that are guaranteed. We're going to go give it our all and just coming together every day in practice and just get better as a team is the biggest thing."
"We've dealt with a lot of different things, such as COVID and people leaving," he said. "Day by day, you hear different things.
"It's been difficult, but at the end of the day we only have one task in mind, and that's just to win ballgames."
The Wildcats have two more chances to do just that, starting at 6 p.m. Saturday at Baylor and wrapping up the regular season at home Dec. 5 against Texas.
"That's what we talked (about) to the guys in the locker room," Klieman said. "We'll find out the character and resolve of this team, and I think we have tremendous character within this locker room and tremendous leadership.
"We're going to challenge guys. And it's not just the captains; it's not just the seniors. We need to challenge the freshmen and the redshirt freshmen to lead in their class."
In the end, it comes down to taking ownership, a recurring oft-repeated mantra during Klieman's two-year tenure.
"I don't want them to forget this feeling," he said. "This one needs to sting. So it's going to hurt for the next 24 hours, and then we come back on Monday.
"Our issues continue to be us holding each other accountable in all phases. That's how championships are built. They're not built by just what you do on the field. You better be accountable to what you do everywhere."