AMES, Ia. Road wins are like puppies: They're all precious. Some are cuter than others, of course. For a Kansas State fan, Wildcats 27, Iowa State 21 was a mutt with crossed eyes, a few missing teeth, and the kind of breath that could kill any flower within a 2-yard radius.
Here was an afternoon that saw the Wildcats:
1. Commit as many penalties in one game (nine) as they'd committed in the previous five games combined;
2. Watch a fair catch on a punt turn into a potentially momentum-crushing fumble;
3. Never really get any separation comfortable separation anyway from their scrappy hosts, who refused to leave the party quietly.
"Oh my goodness," quarterback Collin Klein exclaimed, which is pretty much as close as Collin Klein gets to cursing in public, after his sixth-ranked Wildcats stumbled to 6-0. "I mean, we've got to clean that up. There's no doubt about it, that's not how we play."
As a rule, the Wildcats are tighter than a bass drum. K-State went into the weekend ranked first in the Big 12 in fewest penalties per game (1.8), fewest penalty yards per game (14.2), and turnover margin (2.00). The Fighting Snyders are happy to pound Klein at the opposition like a wooden mallet, time and again, punt, play defense, and patiently wait for you to shoot yourself in the foot.
The Wildcats rarely lose staring contests, and yet here they were, threatening to blink their way out of first place. K-State's first drive of the game reached the Iowa State 18, only to see a 2nd-and-7 Klein rush wiped out by a 15-yard personal foul call. In the second quarter, a Braden Wilson hold took a 10-yard Klein jaunt off the board, pushing the Cats back to a 2nd-and-15 deep inside their own territory.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, K-State was whistled for two fouls a hold on Zach Trujillo and a personal foul on Jonathan Truman and forced to open the third quarter from its own 4-yard-line. Iowa State's first drive of the fourth quarter got a second lease on life when safety Ty Zimmerman was whistled for pass interference on 3rd-and-goal at the K-State 4, negating an incompletion. Two plays later, the Cyclones scored a touchdown that cut the Wildcats' lead to 24-20.
"That's extremely out of character for us," coach Bill Snyder said. "That's a matter of discipline. It's a matter of a lot of things."
Habit, mostly. Over its previous 18 contests, K-State had committed nine or more penalties in a game just twice. Mind you, the locale wasn't much help: The Wildcats hadn't played a tilt in Ames since 2007, and Jack Trice Stadium a crowd of 56,800, officially was rocking in the rain.
K-State linebacker Tre Walker: "Iowa State's crowd was a huge factor in that. They factored in that. They were loud, a great, enthusiastic crowd. But that's no excuse. We came out and made those mistakes."
K-State wideout Chris Harper: "We didn't have the focus we needed. We killed ourselves a lot of those drives."
They owned up to it, which was good. They also escaped, which was better. The Wildcats got sloppy on the road, against a good team Iowa State won at Iowa and at TCU, remember, both nasty places to strap it on and walked away with a victory. Slowly, it should be noted. Gingerly. Modestly.
As business trips go, this one was a coaches' dream: A victory with flaws. Coachable flaws. Teachable flaws.
"Coach said, We ended (the game) being able to be 1-0 today, but we weren't 1-0 on every play,'" Klein said. "And that's something we're striving for and just something we've got to keep getting better (at)."
Good teams have crummy days. Great teams overcome them. West Virginia, K-State's dance partner next weekend, turned up in Lubbock on Saturday and dropped a 49-14 stinker at Texas Tech. Which meant that by the time the dust settled Saturday night, the Wildcats were the last unbeaten team standing the Big 12, the biggest dogs on the block, missing teeth and all.
Oh my goodness.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org