Even in the most ideal circumstances, it would have seemed unlikely that the Colonels would have any realistic chance to pick up a win on the road over a quality Big 12 team.
But they were facing even greater obstacles.
EKU came into a season-opening showdown against Kansas State without its two top offensive playmakers – quarterback T.J. Pryor and wide receiver Orlandus Harris - and with a true freshman starting at quarterback.
Still, with less than two minutes left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Colonels were clinging to a lead in front of a stunned crowd of more than 50,000 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“We knew something crazy was going to happen,” EKU receiver Tyrone Goard said. “Unfortunately, it happened at the end.”
After struggling so badly against a rock solid EKU defense for most of the game, the Wildcats connected on one big play that allowed them to escape with a hard-fought victory. Collin Klein hit Chris Harper on a 33-yard touchdown pass with 1:39 left that propelled Kansas State to a 10-7 win.
“Our (school) president came in (to the locker room) and probably said it best,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “‘I could be happier, but I couldn’t be prouder.’ I just hurt for the kids. They played so hard and put it on the line and they accepted every challenge.”
The EKU defense forced five turnovers (four fumbles and a Brooklyn Fox interception) and allowed only 303 yards of total offense, but the Wildcats got one last chance and took advantage.
Led by Klein, K-State put together an 11-play, 86-yard drive that took 5:46 off the clock. After the junior quarterback ran for two first downs and had a first-down pass on another third down, he hit Harper, who was streaking down the right sideline, for the game-winning score.
“I think (Klein) played with poise,” said K-State coach Bill Snyder after picking up his 150th career win. “I think offensively people thought we were better than we actually are and it showed tonight.”
With Pryor out with a broken bone in his hand, Jared McClain, a freshman from Hiram, Ga., stepped into the lineup. The quarterback completed nine-of-26 passes for 119 yards and was picked off twice. He also had a one-yard TD run with 4:12 left in the third quarter that gave EKU a 7-0 lead.
“I definitely was nervous in the beginning,” McClain said. “After that first snap, I felt fine. This is what I’ve been doing for 12 or 13 years. It’s just football.”
The offense had its chances but was only able to generate 129 total yards, including just 10 yards on 27 rushes.
Goard led the Colonels with two catches for 58 yards, including a 43-yard reception.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do offensively,” Hood said.
The Colonels had the better scoring chances in the first half but were unable to capitalize. EKU forced three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception), still those miscues resulted in just one trip to the red zone, which ended in a missed field goal attempt.
EKU had just 71 yards of total offense in the first half and just three first downs, but limited K-State to 114 yards.
“If we prepare like we did last week and play like we did today, (our defense) can play with anybody,” Hood said. “But, the bottom line is you got to prepare and you’ve got to play.”
The defense set up the Colonels’ only score of the game.
Late in the third quarter, senior safety Patrick McClellan picked up a fumble on the K-State 19-yard line and was almost able to find his way to the end zone on the return.
“That was a fun play,” McClellan said. “I just wish I could have scored.”
Two plays later, McClain scored from a yard out to break a scoreless tie.
K-State responded with a 10-play drive that ended in a missed field goal.
“I told them that first of all, we were blessed and we were the most fortunate people in the state of Kansas,” Snyder said. “I was proud of our defense. I thought defensively we played extremely well, and I do not consider the seven points on the board any ownership of the defense.”
EKU has lost 11 straight season openers and has not defeated a Football Bowl Subdivision Team since 1985 (Louisville, 45-21). The Colonels have also not won a non-conference road game since 2000.
The game marked the first-ever meeting between the teams and the first time EKU has faced a Big 12 school.
Klein was 13-of-21 for 128 yards and rushed for 78 yards.
Jeremiah Williams led EKU with 19 yards rushing on 14 carries.
The Colonels are set to return to action Saturday at home against Missouri State.