After rolling through their first two non-conference opponents, the No. 18 Kansas State Wildcats traveled to Nashville to face a Power Five opponent, the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Many fans and others around the college football world saw it as an opportunity for the Wildcats to make a statement win for their program and the Big 12 Conference.
Wildcat faithfuls showed up in droves. K-State football officials estimated around 17,000 fans contributed to the 40,350 in attendance at Vanderbilt Stadium.
In a story written by Kellis Robinett of the Wichita Eagle leading up to the Vandy game, many K-State players spoke of their excitement for the matchup.
“Just getting a SEC opponent, somebody who has played some big dogs, is exciting,” said sophomore running back Alex Barnes. “We want to be one of those big dogs. We want to give them what they are used to.”
Safe to say, the hype was real among fans and players alike.
The way that the game unfolded, however, was far from what was anticipated.
In a low-scoring, defensive battle the Commodores outlasted the Wildcats with the final score being 14-7.
The loss by itself was tough and brought a lot of criticism to head coach Bill Snyder’s football team. It was made even more bitter by the fact that K-State had two touchdowns called back.
The underwhelming performance dampened a season that many Wildcat fans had high hopes for. There were obviously nine regular season games remaining, but some had national championship aspirations for the team, which was now only possible if K-State won the rest of their games.
Nevertheless, a Big 12 Championship was certainly still a possibility.
Snyder and his team had a bye week to rebound from the Vanderbilt loss and prep for their opening conference game against Baylor University.
The Baylor game went just fine, as the Wildcats won 33-20. Next on the schedule was a trip to Austin, Texas to face the University of Texas Longhorns.
The game against Texas got off to a slow start, with K-State holding a 3-0 lead after the first quarter. The Wildcats would go up 17-7 with 6:29 to go in the first half. At that point, the offense seemed to be rolling while the defense was standing its ground. Soon though, everything fell apart. The Longhorns scored two touchdowns in the last four minutes of the opening half to wipe away all Wildcat momentum, and they carried a 21-17 into the break.
After a hard fought second half, the game went into overtime with the score tied at 27. Texas outlasted K-State, scoring a game-winning touchdown in the second overtime period.
In the third quarter, senior starting quarterback Jesse Ertz scrambled to the left side and suddenly fell to the ground. It was a strange moment because he was in open space and was not hit.
Ertz took himself out of the game and was replaced by sophomore Alex Delton. He would remain out except for one series near the end of the game.
For the remainder of the season, it remained a mystery to the outside world what injury Ertz had suffered. Week after week, Snyder told the media that Ertz would play if he was healthy, and week after week, he did not see the field.
Finally, the week leading up to the team’s final regular season game against Iowa State, Snyder announced that Ertz would be out for the rest of the season and have knee surgery. Even amidst that news it was still never blatantly revealed to the public exactly what injury that Ertz had suffered.
On Dec. 30, 2017, The Hawk Eye, Ertz’s hometown newspaper in Burlington, Iowa, published an article about his career of injuries and what was to come for his future.
In that article, they revealed the diagnosis of the injury that ended his season. Ertz had suffered an “articular cartilage lesion, in which his femur and shin bones slammed together, basically putting a pothole in his femur which required microfracture surgery.”
The injury that ended Ertz’s season combined with the earlier loss to Vanderbilt changed the trajectory of K-State’s season.
It could have been worse, though. The Wildcats rallied to win four of their last five regular season games and win the Cactus Bowl to finish 8-5. That feat was similar to the 2016 season when they won five of their last six regular season games, followed by a win in the Texas Bowl to finish 9-4 on the season.
Backup quarterbacks Delton and redshirt freshman Skylar Thompson did step up in the absence of Ertz.
Thompson particularly gained favor among fans.
His most notable performance was in the upset of then No. 13 Oklahoma State when he passed for 204 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 93 more yards and another score.
Delton also made a name for himself. His most impressive outing came as he ran all over UCLA’s defense for 158 yards and three scores, while throwing another in the Cactus Bowl win.
Even with others stepping up to save the season it is easy to wonder what would have happened if K-State got a momentum-filled victory over Vanderbilt and had their starting quarterback the whole season.
Ertz put up impressive performances in the two games prior to the loss against Vanderbilt. Against the University of Central Arkansas Bears, he completed 10-of-16 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns. His passing efficiency mark of 319.8 in that game set a new Wildcat record.
The following week versus Charlotte was not quite as spectacular, but still a good performance. Ertz didn’t throw a touchdown on the 49ers, but completed 16-of-21 throws for 178 yards. He also ran 13 times for 76 yards and one touchdown.
Against Vandy, Ertz left something to be desired for in the passing game, but made up for it with his legs. He only completed 36 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions, but ran for 126 yards and a touchdown. Some have thought that his 24 carries in that game contributed to his knee injury a few weeks later.
In the Baylor and Texas games, Ertz amassed 343 yards through the air with three touchdowns against just one interception, while running for 99 yards and a touchdown.
There is really no way to predict how a player will perform and it is easy to look back and ask, “what if?” but Ertz was playing at a fairly high level, and things were looking good for K-State.
Through five games, Ertz had thrown seven touchdowns against just three interceptions, 930 yards for an average of 186 yards-per-game, and had a completion percentage of 55 percent.
While Thompson and Delton did step up for the Wildcats, I believe that if the team was able to keep consistency with a knowledgeable, veteran presence like Ertz behind center, the season may have not been quite as rocky as it was.
In terms of wins and losses, the Vanderbilt game looms large.
If K-State had beaten Vanderbilt, and still go on to beat Baylor, they would have been 4-0. A 4-0 record would have created momentum going into the game against Texas. Had Ertz not gotten injured, that momentum may very well have propelled the Wildcats to victory even if the game still did go to overtime.
With a 5-0 record heading into a matchup with then-No. 6 TCU, the game may have looked a lot different. K-State surely would have still been nationally ranked, possibly even in the top-10.
I do not believe that the Wildcats would have beaten the Horned Frogs, and possibly not even then-No. 9 Oklahoma the following week. I do think, though, that they would have won all their remaining games, including West Virginia, who they did lose to by just five.
K-State would have finished the regular season with a 10-2 record, and most likely a spot in the Camping World Bowl.
It is fun to take a step back and reflect on what could have been, but in football there are no re-dos. The loss at Vanderbilt was discouraging and the loss of Ertz was tough for the team and the individual, but respect is due to the Wildcats for how they finished the season.
All that is left to do now is to work hard in the offseason and prepare for the 2018 season. A readjusted coaching staff and a quarterback battle between Thompson and Delton await Wildcat fans. K-State will return multiple offensive starters and contributors and a few on defense, too.
The 2018 K-State Spring Game is scheduled for April 21. The 2018 regular season opener is scheduled for Sept. 1 against South Dakota.
Jarrett Whitson is a sophomore in mass communications. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.