Klieman looks ahead without regrets

Arne Green
Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) jumps over the  Texas defensive back Chris Brown (15) during Saturday's game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

MANHATTAN — Even in the aftermath of a 38-point loss, Kansas State coach Chris Klieman had no regrets.

Disappointment, to be sure, but in looking at the bigger picture, the Wildcats achieved his No. 1 stated goal at the start of a football season filled with uncertainty. They completed their schedule with no postponements and cancellations.

That they lost their final five games to finish the regular season at 4-6 overall and 4-5 in the Big 12? That was unfortunate, but also a concern for another day.

"Not disappointed in the fact that we played 10 football games this year, when not many people did play that many games," Klieman said after Texas blew out the Wildcats 69-31 on Saturday in their regular-season finale at Bill Snyder Family stadium. "For our kids to battle with all the adversity they faced, whether it be injuries, to COVID, to opt-outs to transfers — everything that those kids faced — they came to work every day and they battled."

Against Texas, that clearly was not enough with a roster that has been ravaged by COVID-19 as well as injuries, plus had several players enter the transfer portal.

The Longhorns destroyed the Wildcats' pieced-together defense, rolling up 608 yards and scoring on 11 of 14 possessions with nine touchdowns.

Despite weeks where, thanks to COVID-19 testing, they barely met the thresholds for playing, the Wildcats trudged on. But that didn't make it easier to watch at times, especially in blowout losses to West Virginia (37-10), Iowa State (45-0) and Texas.

But Klieman didn't lay all the blame on COVID-19 and its collateral damage.

"Part of it, for sure, because we were one of the teams that played every week," he said. "And we didn't have enough bodies, but I thought it was really important for our guys to play. Our seniors wanted to play.

"All that being said, the players that are out there, they've got K-State on their chest. They've got to come out and play, and play well."

Quarterback Will Howard, a true freshman thrown into the lineup when third-year senior starter Skylar Thompson was lost for the season in early October, faced his share of criticism, but said the whole team struggled during the five-game losing streak.

"It's been rough," he said after completing 16 of 27 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns, plus rushing for 79 yards, but also turning the ball over three times. "Nobody wants to end the year like this, but we kept fighting, and that says a lot about these guys, about these seniors (and) the guys that I'm in the locker room with.

"They welcomed me in with open arms, and the things that happened this year were not even close to ideal … (but) I'm proud of the way we fought. There's a lot of little things we need to clean up on and discipline things we need to get better at, but overall we fought, and I'm proud of that."

With the pandemic still raging, and with players essentially granted a free year of eligibility, the path forward for the Wildcats remains unclear. With all teams bowl eligible, they could even receive a postseason invitation.

As for the seniors, Klieman declined to discuss how many of them might return for one more year.

"But the guys that are coming back, I told them we needed to be better as coaches, and we will," Klieman said. "And players needed to be better and needed to take ownership for the program.

"Because that's when we'll turn the corner, is when the kids take the ownership of the program and not the coaches. We have enough of the right guys coming back that I believe that can happen."