The seventh-ranked Buckeyes will return to the scene of one of their biggest triumphs when they tackle Big 12 champion Kansas State, rated eighth, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Friday at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. (8 p.m. Eastern, ABC).
It was just one short year ago when Ohio State climbed the mountain and won the national championship with a dramatic double overtime victory over heavily favored defending champion Miami (Fla.).
The stakes are a little bit lessened this time around as the OSU-Kansas State match-up pales in comparison to the two Bowl Championship Series games that have national title implications (USC-Michigan in the Rose and Oklahoma-LSU in the Sugar). Some may even say another battle between old rivals Miami and Florida State in the Orange Bowl carries more cache than this Fiesta Bowl match-up.
But this will be the first-ever meeting between OSU (10-2) and Kansas State (11-3). It pits one of the college game‘s most tradition laden programs against one of football‘s best success stories over the last 15 years.
Although this game may be a yawner to some -- OSU fans aren't flocking to the Valley of the Sun as they did a year ago -- the Buckeyes are taking this game seriously, OSU head coach Jim Tressel said.
"Kansas State was a team that was thought to vie for the national championship before the season," Tressel said. "They had some injuries and a down period during the middle of the season, but have come together well at the end of the season and clearly proved to be the best team in the Big 12 at the end of the year.
"Kansas State is good and they're hot. That's why we have to go to work and prepare. If you play in a BCS game, you play against one of the best eight teams in the country. Kansas State is as good a team as anyone in the country."
It has been a slow build for Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who inherited a moribund football program when he left a cushy job as the offensive coordinator for Hayden Fry at Iowa to come to Manhattan in 1989. The Wildcats had been a doormat in the Big Six, Big Seven and finally the Big Eight for much of the previous 50 years.
How bad were things at K-State? Since the Wildcats won their last conference title (Big Six) in 1934 until 1988 -- a span of 54 seasons -- they had won a combined 137 games (or an average of 2.5 wins per year). During that span, K-State had just five winning seasons.
In the four years before his arrival, the Wildcats were a combined 3-40-1. But Snyder came in and meticulously made over the program. Within three years, he had a 7-4 team. Within five seasons, K-State had become a permanent fixture -- other than the 2001 season -- in the final national top 25.
"We live in a `What have you done for me lately' world, and there is always a tomorrow," Snyder said. "In our realm, there is going to be more football and more football games. There's always something you can improve upon, and my focus goes to that. I'm pleased and happy about winning, but there is going to be another day."
It has been a long and arduous climb to K-State's first-ever Bowl Championship Series berth. The Wildcats have already endured a 14-game regular season, including a BCA Classic win over Cal at the beginning and a 35-7 pasting of top-ranked Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game Dec. 6.
"I'm not looking backwards and I don't encourage our players to do that, either," Snyder said. "We needed to take some time off, especially with as many games as we have played, 14 already. But we have to get our minds set to play (Ohio State)."
In recent years, Kansas State had a reputation for doing two things -- beating up on poor nonconference competition and failing to win big games. This year, K-State opened 4-0 and moved as high as No. 6 in the AP poll. But then things went awry. Quarterback Ell Roberson suffered an injured left hand in a 55-14 rout of McNeese State.
Two weeks later, Roberson was still on the shelf as Marshall went into Manhattan and stunned the Wildcats 27-20. The slide continued with tight road losses at Texas (24-20) and Oklahoma State (38-34).
But Roberson made it back and, along with running back Darren Sproles and a stifling defense, helped lead K-State on a seven-game winning streak to wrap up the regular season. Most impressive were lopsided wins over Colorado (49-20), at Nebraska (38-9) and the Big 12 title game over Oklahoma. The win at Nebraska was K-State's first in Lincoln since 1968 and helped the Wildcats clinch their third Big 12 North Division title in six years.
The win over Oklahoma was an even bigger achievement -- the school's first win over a top-three team ever. Sproles led the way with 235 yards rushing, while Roberson threw for four touchdowns to fuel the rout of the Sooners.
"I'm excited first and foremost for our players, who really have established a way of doing things over the past couple of months that gives anybody a chance to have this kind of success," Snyder said. "They've been committed toward those values. I greatly appreciate that. This has meant a lot to the them and I'm pleased for them because they've absolutely earned the opportunity to be the conference champions."
Tressel said K-State's rise from that 4-3 start is a lesson for teams everywhere. Their win over Oklahoma, where the Wildcats were a two-touchdown underdog, was just the icing on the cake.
"They were not shaken when they trailed by seven at the beginning of the Big 12 championship game," Tressel said. "They recovered and truly took control of that game. They played well on defense. Offensively, they had four plays of 60 yards or more."
Great Ground Game
The Kansas State offense is predicated on the run/pass play of Roberson (6-1, 205) and the hard running of Sproles (5-7, 170). K-State ended the year ranked sixth nationally in rushing at 238.9 yards per game. The Wildcats were also 18th in total offense (445.5 yards per game) and eighth in scoring (37.2 points per contest).
Roberson leads the way, controlling the tempo of the game with the option as well as his throwing arm. He is a true dual threat quarterback. He has rushed for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns and also completed 132 of 243 passes (54.3 percent) for 2,251 yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
"I just kept plugging away, and my teammates kept believing in me, that I would be ready for games," said Roberson, who missed two starts due to the injured hand. "I just played my game and didn't worry about all the other things. All I wanted to do was get some W's up on the board. You get those W's, and the pain goes away."
Roberson, a senior, is wrapping up his third year as a starter for the Wildcats. He has set school career touchdown records in three categories -- total (38), rushing (38), and passing (37), which don't count in the total category. He also became the career total offense leader.
"He's a better football player collectively," Snyder said. "He made some mistakes in past years that he is less prone to now. It's a maturity and experience thing. I don't think he's much different physically."
It does not hurt, obviously, to be able to flip the ball to a tailback like Sproles, a junior who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Sproles earned first-team All-American and first-team All-Big 12 honors after rushing for 1,948 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns. Sproles average per game of 139.1 yards rushing ranked second nationally.
"He's not a vocal young guy," said Snyder, who was miffed that Sproles was not invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony. "He is what you see. He's the real deal. He's not pretentious. He has an impact on this program because of what he does. He walks the walk. They see his passion and that has an impact on it. You'd be a corpse to not be impacted by what he does."
Roberson's top receiving threat is 6-5, 180-pound senior James Terry, a second-team All-Big 12 pick with 60 catches for 1,174 yards and 13 touchdowns. Junior Antoine Polite (6-2, 180) is a fine possession receiver with 27 grabs.
Fullback Travis Wilson (6-4, 240) and tight end Brian Casey (6-7, 270) are glorified linemen who help make the ground game go.
The offensive line would have to be considered among America's best. Center Nick Leckey, a 6-4, 285-pound senior, was a first-team All-Big 12 pick. Left guard Ryan Lilja, a 6-3, 300-pound senior, was a second-team all-conference selection.
They are joined up front by left tackle Jon Doty (6-7, 270), right guard Mike Johnson (6-4, 280) and right tackle Jeromey Clary (6-7, 290). Only Johnson was a returning starter at his position as Leckey, a two-year starter at left guard, moved in to an open spot at center.
"I hated that we were being considered a question mark," Lilja said.
But they erased all of those doubts as K-State scored 35 or more points 10 times. The line allowed just 17 sacks all season.
"The offensive line is probably playing the best ball they've played all year," Roberson said. "Nick Leckey is really leading them well. Lilja, Doty, Clary, Mike -- all those guys are really stepping up and playing well together."
Kicker Joe Rheem, a junior, was 12 of 16 on field goals this year with a long of 44 yards.
Pretty Good On Defense, Too
Don't get the impression that Kansas State is a one dimensional juggernaut. The Wildcats rank even better nationally on defense, where they finished fifth in total defense (279.2 yards per game), fourth in scoring (14.9 points per game), eighth in pass defense (173.6 yards per game) and 15th against the run (105.6 yards per game).
Perhaps no single unit for any team in the country finished the year on a better note than the Kansas State defense, which allowed its last six opponents a combined 46 points.
"Accountability and responsibility are sometimes used interchangeably," Snyder said of his defense. "It's everyone accepting responsibility to do what they are coached to do, be where they are supposed to be and do it correctly."
If K-State's offensive line kept opponents out of the backfield, that is where the Wildcats' defensive front lived. They helped K-State notch a combined 51 sacks. The leaders were senior defensive tackle Justin Montgomery (6-2, 281) and senior defensive end Andrew Shull (6-5, 260).
They were each second-team All-Big 12 picks as Shull had eight sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss and Montgomery turned in six sacks. They are joined in the starting unit by junior nose tackle Jermaine Berry (6-0, 295), who had seven sacks, and senior end Thomas Houchin (6-3, 260), who had four sacks.
The linebacker corps is special, led by second-team All-American and first-team All-Big 12 pick Josh Buhl, a 6-0, 210-pound senior. Buhl tallied an amazing 171 tackles, including 11 for losses.
Buhl is joined in the starting lineup by rangy senior Bryan Hickman (6-3, 230) and sophomore Ted Sims (6-1, 230). Hickman was second to Buhl in tackles (104) and second to Shull in TFLs (12). Sims, a steady contributor, added 71 stops.
Senior strong safety Rashad Washington (6-3, 210) leads the secondary. He was third on the squad with 90 tackles. He is joined by senior Randy Jordan (6-2, 175) and junior Cedrick Williams (5-9, 165) at the corners and by sophomore Jesse Tetuan (6-0, 185) at free safety. Senior James McGill (6-3, 215) also sees a great deal of action at safety and as a nickel back. He leads K-State with six interceptions.
Senior Jared Brite handles the punting chores. He averaged 41.1 yards per punt and put 22 of his 61 punts inside the 20.
Sproles has been K-State's most effective return man, averaging 12.0 yards on punt returns (with a 63-yard touchdown) and 30.0 yards on kick returns.
* Because the Big 12 is the official bowl tie-in conference for the Fiesta Bowl, Kansas State will be the home team and use the east bench. For the second year in a row, Ohio State will be the designated visiting team and will wear its road white jerseys and use the west bench.
* Ohio State will be making its fourth Fiesta Bowl trip. OSU fell to Penn State 31-19 in the 1980 game before defeating Pittsburgh 28-23 in 1984 and winning over Miami last year.
This will be Kansas State's second trip to the desert. K-State defeated Syracuse 35-18 in the 1997 game, one year before the start of the BCS.
* Keeping track of how these teams are ranked is no easy chore in and of itself. Ohio State is ranked seventh in the AP poll, sixth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and was fifth in the final BCS rankings. Kansas State is eighth in AP and in the coaches poll and 10th in the final BCS rankings.
With a win, Ohio State would be assured of its second straight top-five finish and 15th since the advent of the AP poll in 1936. It would also be OSU's first back-to-back top-five finishes since ending the 1973-75 seasons in the AP top five.
* OSU's all-time bowl record is 15-19. The Buckeyes will be going for consecutive bowl wins for the first time since 1985-86, when they defeated BYU in the Citrus and Texas A&M in the Cotton in back-to-back seasons.
As you might expect, Kansas State's bowl dossier is, well, short. The school's first bowl appearance came in 1982 with an Independence Bowl loss to Wisconsin. Since then, Snyder has led K-State to bowls in each of the last 10 years, winning six of them including a 34-27 decision over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl last year.
* Tressel and Snyder have never faced each other as head coaches. But they were on opposite sidelines as assistants for three OSU-Iowa battles from 1983-85. Iowa won 20-14 in 1983 before OSU prevailed 45-26 in 1984 and defeated top-ranked Iowa 22-13 in 1985.
* Oddsmakers have installed Kansas State as a seven-point favorite to win the Fiesta Bowl.
* OSU is 25-3-1 all-time against current members of the Big 12. Besides Kansas State, OSU has never played Texas, Iowa State or Kansas.
Kansas State is 5-22-1 all-time against Big Ten competition, although Snyder is 3-0 with two wins over Minnesota and one over Iowa. Aside from OSU, Kansas State has never played Michigan or Northwestern from the Big Ten.
* Click the link below for a look at game data, depth charts and one man's opinion on how this game could play out.