MANHATTAN, Kan. —
Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker was still wiping away the sweat dripping from his brow in the minutes after a thorough dismantling of Massachusetts when his focus shifted to Texas.
The Wildcats knocked off the Longhorns in their regular-season finale last year to wrap up the Big 12 title, and now open defense of it with a return trip to Austin on Saturday night.
"To go down to Texas and make a big win happen, that's big,'' Walker said. "That really kicks off our season no matter where we are in our schedule.''
Where the Wildcats are in their schedule is three games deep into a roller-coaster ride.
They opened with a disheartening defeat to lower-division North Dakota State, bounced back with a lackluster performance against Louisiana-Lafayette, and then dazzled at times - and still looked baffling at others - in a 37-7 victory over the Minutemen on Saturday night.
The Wildcats trailed UMass early on before a 21-point second-quarter binge put the game on cruise control. Still, there were enough questions in the run defense, the passing attack and at quarterback, where Daniel Sams and Jake Waters continue to share reps, to make coach Bill Snyder a bit queasy about heading to Austin and getting into the meat of the schedule.
"We have to get a lot better real quick,'' he said. "Real quick.''
Then again, maybe not.
As much trouble as Kansas State (2-1) has had early in the season, the Longhorns (1-2) have had even more issues. They were run over by BYU a couple weeks ago, shook up their defensive staff this week and then were walloped 44-23 by Ole Miss on Saturday night.
"I understand they're going through some difficult times, but don't dare underestimate Texas,'' Snyder warned. "They'll be a handful for anybody. They've got good people.''
Platitudes aside, the Wildcats haven't had much trouble with Texas for quite a while. They've won five straight meetings in the series, several of them in lopsided fashion.
The run began during the Ron Prince era, when Snyder stepped away for a brief retirement and unranked Kansas State knocked off the fourth-ranked Longhorns during the 2006 season. Kansas State rolled to a 41-21 victory the following year, and then the rotating schedule back when there was 12 teams in the league meant the two programs didn't meet again until the 2010 season.
The coach changed - Snyder was back on the Kansas State sideline - but the results remained the same. Kansas State rolled to a win in 2010, squeaked out a 17-13 victory two years ago and then laid waste to the Longhorns 42-24 last season to wrap up its second Big 12 championship.
Lest the Longhorns forget about it, Walker made sure to remind them at Big 12 media day in July when he said of last year's game, "They kind of laid down a little bit. That's nothing to say about their character. That's just what they do.''
Walker reached out to Texas to apologize, but the message was already delivered: The mantra of "don't mess with Texas'' hasn't really applied to Kansas state lately.
"We don't feel like we have any pressure. We have nothing to lose,'' Walker said. "At Kansas State, someone is always trying to put us down. We use that as a chip on our shoulder.''
Indeed, hardly anybody in the Kansas State locker room Saturday night spent much time reliving an easy win over UMass, even though there was plenty to feel good about. The Wildcats had a pick-six for the second time in as many weeks, rolled up 329 yards rushing and kept the Minutemen off the scoreboard for the final three quarters despite several long marches.
The quarterback rotation of Jake Waters, the better passer, and run-first Daniel Sams is also starting to get on track. Waters threw for 115 yards and two touchdowns while Sams ran for 77 yards and a score, providing a spark when the Kansas State offense grew stagnant.
All of that was enough to embolden the Wildcats as they head to Texas on Saturday night.
"I like the way it's going right now,'' Sams said.