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Oct. 20—With his team 0-3 in Big 12 play — and riding an eight-game losing streak in conference games dating back to last season — Kansas State head football coach Chris Klieman had a request for media members Tuesday: He wants to see positivity in newsprint and on the airwaves.
"Sometimes we all have a tendency to take it from the negative standpoint," Klieman said during his weekly press conference. "I'm telling you guys, 18-to-22-year-olds can't handle the negative side of things. I'm asking you guys — I'm asking for your help. We need to be more positive. I know we can play better. You know we can play better, but we've got to give these kids more positive things, because we've got a great locker room. The kids do care about each other, kids who love each other, coaches who believe in these kids, and we can't give up on them."
After more than five seconds of silence, Klieman cracked a joke.
"Didn't mean that to be the ending deal," he said with a smile. "I should have dropped the mic and (left)."
The Wildcats' recent lack of success in league competition is no laughing matter, though.
K-State enters Saturday's game at Texas Tech searching for its first win over a conference foe since Oct. 24, 2020. That day, it beat in-state rival — and longtime Big 12 doormat — Kansas in a 55-14 rout. The Wildcats dropped their final five games of the 2020 season, which all were conference affairs: home losses to Oklahoma State (20-18) and Texas (69-31) alongside road setbacks to West Virginia (37-10), Iowa State (45-0) and Baylor (32-31). Though K-State began this fall 3-0 in a trio of non-conference games, that fast start came to a screeching halt once it hit the Big 12 portion of its slate. It lost its Big 12 opener, 31-20, at Oklahoma State on Sept. 25. The Wildcats then fell short in back-to-back home games, first to then-No. 6 Oklahoma (37-31) on Oct. 2 and last week to Iowa State (33-20).
At various points in all three games, K-State had chances to strike decisive blows and move ahead. In turn, that might have changed the outcome of those contests.
But it didn't happen.
Hypotheticals don't change the fact the Wildcats are 0-3 in the Big 12.
While Klieman is disappointed they still have a zero in the win column in the league standings, he remains optimistic brighter days are ahead.
He makes sure to share that view with his coaching staff and players as often as possible.
"You cannot trip on what's behind you. We didn't play well enough, and we got beat," he said. "If you keep thinking about the negative, you're going to lose sight of what's coming in front of you. I know that we have to challenge each other as coaches and challenge each other as players to be better, but you need to do that with a positive mindset."
Thinking back to last week's loss to the Cyclones, Klieman said "a play here and there" made the difference in victory and defeat. At the same time, Klieman said, "you can say that about every game." Had a few plays turned out differently in the Wildcats' first three outings this fall, then perhaps they wouldn't have completed their non-conference scheduled unblemished. Yet players and coaches always say they'd rather learn from a win than a loss.
And for Klieman, merely knocking on the door of winning the past three games doesn't cut it.
"I'm tired of being close," he said. "The guys are tired of being close. ... We're close, but nobody wants to hear close. We need to get it done."
Klieman said he believes the team already has taken steps toward doing just that.
It started Sunday.
In a staff meeting, Klieman said every coach, including himself, "took ownership" for on-field mistakes in recent weeks.
"You can't put it on the kid," he said. "You've got to look at yourself and put it on yourself as a coach first and say, 'Are we putting these guys in the best position to be successful, and are we simplified enough so the kids can understand it and play fast?' The first thing is, as coaches, we need to be better."
K-State's coaches spent all of Sunday and half of Monday discussing how to put their players in more advantageous situations. Later on Monday, Klieman met with members of the player leadership council before addressing the entire team.
"(I tried) to explain to those guys," Klieman said, "'Hey, we've got to take some ownership in this, too, as coaches. Everybody needs to give a little bit more. Everybody can step up a little bit, and everybody can own their role a little bit more — but that's coaches as well. This isn't just the offense, just the defense, just one part of the offense, one part of the defense. This is a collective group.'"
The sense of togetherness on this year's team regularly has been cited by players since the end of last season's coronavirus-impaired campaign. Iterations on the phrase, "This is the most close-knit team I've been on at K-State" constantly cropped up during preseason interviews.
As Klieman tells it, that camaraderie is paying dividends now given the Wildcats' current hardship.
"Thank heavens we are a close team, because you can be divided when you have adversity strike," Klieman said. "I've been pleased with our leadership, our older guys, the council to be able to bring guys together. Guys know it — guys know that we need to take ownership and get this thing (going) in the right direction."
To even get back to level in the Big 12, the Wildcats need to win their next three games; after Texas Tech, they face TCU at home and head to Lawrence to take on the Jayhawks.
The good news: K-State is a combined 6-0 against those three squads since Klieman's first season in 2019.
More good news (even if it comes with a caveat of three losses): The Wildcats last three opponents are a combined 17-2 this fall.
"Our kids believe and we believe we're one of the better teams in the conference," Klieman said, "but we've not proven that every Saturday. That's why I keep talking about that you cannot worry about what's behind you. That's over with."
The Wildcats do want to look to the past in one respect, however, and that's in trying to replicate the preparation, film study and walkthroughs that led to such success in their first three games this year.
"It's a delicate balance to say we're good enough when we prepare like we did against Nevada, like we did against Stanford, but against teams that are really talented, you'll prepare or not be locked in, there are some teams with some really special players out there that are going to make some plays," Klieman said. "There's a reason why they're first team All-American or are up for a Heisman or whatever it may be."
Going forward, K-State hopes a straightforward formula leads to a turnaround: take one page from the past and incorporate it into the present for a better future.
"(We're) continuing to get the guys to focus on the task at hand: that's today," Klieman said. "I loved our leadership council because on Monday they just kept saying, 'Coach, we just need to go 1-0 today,' meaning Monday. That's what we need to do today is we need to go 1-0 on Tuesday, and continue that preparation, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and not cram for the final on Friday."