The fate of Ron Prince's reign as Kansas State head football coach was old news entering Saturday's game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. What had yet to be determined was just how many games Prince had left. The Wildcats entered with a chance to secure bowl eligibility, should they sweep their final two games, meaning Prince would exit with a potential trip to the postseason. The Huskers put such hopes to an end on Saturday, topping the Wildcats 56-28.
"We were really hoping that we could push into the postseason with this game," senior wide receiver Ernie Pierce said.
The loss confirms that Prince, along with every senior on the roster, has just one game left on the K-State sideline.
"It's life," wide receiver Brandon Banks said of facing the reality of next week's season finale. "I'm going to go out there and play hard for Coach Prince. I think he's a great man and I'm just going to go out there and play hard for them, just like any other game. We're in a bad situation right now, but we're going to pull out of it.
The Wildcats will miss postseason for the second consecutive season, and the fourth time in the last five years. A trip to the Texas Bowl in Prince's inaugural campaign marks the only trip K-State has made to the postseason since their 2003 Big 12 championship.
"Not making postseason is very disappointing," said senior defensive end Ian Campbell. "It's your entire goal, whether it's making the championship or BCS."
The loss marked the Wildcats' fifth straight this season, and fourth consecutive loss to the Cornhuskers. Prince will leave Kansas State winless against the neighbors to the north in his Wildcat career. Despite the fact that he has just one game left as Wildcat head coach, Prince said he has seen no evidence of a lack of effort among his squad.
"These kids are playing real hard," Prince said. "They're playing their tails off. This is a very good team we played and I thought our kids fought all the way to the very end."
The game proved somewhat nostalgic, though not in a way the fans bundled up in purple might hope. Nebraska evoked memories of several previous victories in Manhattan, as they out-gained K-State 610-247. They rushed for 340 yards, while limiting K-State to just 59 on the ground. From the large groupings of red-clan fans in Bill Snyder Family Stadium to the "Go Big Red" chants that echoed as the waning seconds ticked off the clock, at times the game seemed to mimic a contest from 1988 rather than 2008.
Despite the lopsided final score, the game began as a punch-out. A 14-14 tie took a drastic turn in Nebraska's favor when Wildcat return man Deon Murphy lost his grasp of the football on a punt return. Nebraska running back Roy Helu, Jr. trotted into the end zone from 24 yards out just two plays later, and the Huskers were back in control. Nebraska scored twice more before the close of the first half, leading to a 35-14 Husker lead at the break.
"That was a really unfortunate, key play," Prince said of the Murphy fumble. From the point of the fumble on, Nebraska outscored Kansas State 42-14.
Quarterback Joe Ganz led the way for Nebraska, rushing for a game-high 95 yards and a pair of scores, along with passing for 270 yards and two touchdowns. When asked what the overriding issue was with K-State's defense on the afternoon, Prince's discussion immediately veered toward the effectiveness of the NU signal caller.
"It was pretty clear that we couldn't tackle their quarterback," Prince said. "No matter who it was – defensive ends, corners, safeties, linebackers – we couldn't tackle him.
The Wildcats got on the scoreboard early when safety Courtney Herndon grabbed a deflected Ganz pass and took it 57 yards for a touchdown, trucking over would-be tacklers on his way into the end zone.
Operating from behind, the Huskers responded with a nine-play, 73-yard drive to tie the game a seven apiece. Taking advantage of the Wildcats' rushing defense – the worst in the Big 12 in conference play – Nebraska rushed the ball eight times on the drive, averaging over five yards per carry.
Less than five minutes later, the Huskers came knocking at the Wildcat door again. The K-State defense looked to have a big stop in mind, shutting Nebraska down on second-and-one and third-and-one rushing attempts. Fourth-and-one was a different story as Nebraska running back Quentin Castille found a gap and raced 37 yards for a touchdown.
The Wildcats evened the score when Freeman connected with Pierce for a 63-yard touchdown. Pierce proved to be the lone productive source of offense for K-State in the first half. The Wildcats totaled 107 first half yards and 80 of them game via a pair of Pierce receptions.
"Offensively, we had a really tough (first) half," Prince said. "We really just didn't get much going."
Freeman completed just seven of 18 first half passes. Meanwhile, the Husker defense thwarted the Wildcat rushing attack. K-State exited the half with negative-7 yards on the ground. Freeman's lack of productivity ultimately resulted in a benching midway through the third quarter.
"(Josh) wasn't his normal self for whatever reason," Prince said, "and because of that, I pulled him out of the game." Whether or not injury was the cause of Freeman's ineffectiveness remained in question following the game. "We'll have to have an evaluation to see what's going on," Prince said.
Second-string quarterback Carson Coffman subbed in for Freeman in the third quarter and led the Wildcats on a nine play scoring drive. The Wildcats also scored on a 98-yard kick return by Banks in the fourth quarter, cutting the Husker lead to 14. A pair of late Cornhusker touchdowns pushed the Nebraska lead back to 28 by the final snap of the game.
The Wildcats' season will come to a close next Saturday, when the Iowa State Cyclones travel to Manhattan. Murphy stressed that the game will be a meaningful one. "We want to win this one for the seniors, but not only for the seniors," Murphy said. "Also for the coaching staff and for Coach Prince. We don't know what our coaches' futures are, especially our assistant coaches. We don't know if they're coming back or if they're leaving. We want to win for them, but we also want to win for us."