The weight resting on the shoulders of Kansas State quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams just days before the biggest game of the season is as heavy as it was when this whole thing started months ago. Then again, that's generally what comes with the territory of their position. But this is different. So are the reasons behind the comparable pressure.
Heading into the 2013 campaign, all of this was about replacing Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and continuing the program's winning ways under the direction of legendary head coach Bill Snyder. Fast-forward 12 games and now the two signal-callers are the headliners as they enter the spotlight for the final time this season when K-State, 7-5, takes on Michigan, 7-5, in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 9:15 p.m. CST on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. That's how far they've come. That's how much Waters and Sams mean to this team.
"Just how dynamic those two are in their playmaking ability and what they offer to this team has been huge because you know, behind the center, every snap you got somebody that's capable of making a big play in any situation and on any play, any down," junior wide receiver Curry Sexton said. "Just the way they interact and the way that they feed off of each other is so fun to watch and so fun to be a part of. They work well together and stayed by each other's side through it all.
"I'm proud of those guys. I know that, being the competitors that they are, they both wish they were out there on every down, but they've handled it so well. There's not really enough you can say about those two and how they've handled everything and how they've performed when they got the chance."
It's not every day that you see a two-quarterback system work in any level of football. Nor is it highly likely to watch a team crawl out of a 2-4 hole that featured head-scratching play and puzzling rotations to win five of the final six contests. Yet, both happened for K-State this season and Waters and Sams were a big reason as to why it did.
"I think when me and Daniel are playing well and we're kind of switching in and out and being smooth and fluid and everything, that just makes our team better as a whole," Waters said.
There's no doubt. When the contrasting quarterbacks, and the coaches to an extent, figured it out, as did the Wildcats. It's not just a coincidence.
"It's so contagious," Sexton said. "Like you saw in those games when Daniel was running the ball really well and his energy and everything. He gets up and he's hyped and that gets everybody else into it. Then in that Oklahoma game when Jake was spinning the ball and torching the Oklahoma secondary. You feed off that stuff. They get excited then you get excited because when they get that confidence in them and say, 'I can't be stopped right now.' Then you know that they're going to go out there and be tough to stop. That makes it so much easier on all of us."
You better believe that includes the defense, too.
"It's super contagious," junior defensive end Ryan Mueller said. "I love it when guys are playing well for us, especially if they're on my team. You know, seeing Jake throwing big bombs to Tyler Lockett and Lockett running in for the score, it's a huge confidence boost for the whole team and everybody on the team gets hyped so it's awesome."
"It's very beneficial because when we see that, they're taking care of business on offense and it's almost like we can't let them down on defense," senior linebacker Tre Walker said. "It just strives everybody and it pushes the energy up and it pushes the defense to want to get the ball off the field in three downs. When that happens and the offense starts to move and they start to do their job, it just makes a great game for us."
Now it's time to complete this improbable turnaround with a signature win and it will be up to Waters and Sams to lead the charge against a sound Michigan defense that has lost four of its last five games.
"Well, in any ball game that you play your quarterback better be a factor," Snyder said. "If he's not then you've got some major, major issues… Both of them have to be a factor -- a positive factor. They will be a factor. We want them to be a positive factor."
Led primarily by the right arm of Waters, who completed 59 percent of his throws for 2,198 yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 starts this season, and the legs of Sams, who racked up 784 yards on 148 carries with 11 touchdowns, all the components are there to cause the Wolverines problems. It's just a matter of how Michigan defense coordinator Greg Mattison wants to attack it that will likely dictate who plays more.
"They present a challenge in that 15 (Waters) can throw it and he's mobile. 4 (Sams) can run it and he can throw it enough to keep you honest," he said. "You've got a combination of two pretty good things right there."
Only time will tell what will take place, but K-State is in trusted hands with Waters and Sams in the huddle. And as generic and cliché as it seems, these two starting the charge and leading with their play is essential to any sort of success.
"It's one of the sparks," Waters said. "When we go out there on offense and when we go and score, that gives everybody confidence. You know, 'Hey, we're rolling' or 'Hey, we're good to go.' When I'm on the sideline and I see Daniel making a play or something, I want to get out there and make a play. That gives me confidence knowing we can play with these guys.
"That's definitely a big thing for us to start fast and make big plays."