Before the Big 12 championship game between Kansas State and Texas A&M in St. Louis last Saturday, the senior season of Aggies running back Sirr Parker had not turned out, as good ol' boy coaches like to say, the way you'da drawn it up. Sixty-six carries for 196 yards and one touchdown. Five receptions for 57 yards. The only thing that had drawn up was Parker's right hamstring, early in the season, leaving him ineffective for much of the rest of the year. Who would have guessed, then, that Parker, with only one catch, for eight yards, in nearly four quarters against K-State, would finish with a flurry, tying the game in the final 65 seconds with a nine-yard touchdown reception and a two-point conversion catch and then finding the end zone on a 32-yard catch-and-run in the second overtime to give the Aggies a stunning 36-33 victory over the previously undefeated and second-ranked Wildcats.
"I've always dreamed of scoring the game-winning touchdown," Parker said afterward, but even he was surprised how the final play unfolded. With Texas A&M trailing by three points and facing third-and-17 on the Kansas State 32, Aggies coaches ordered Parker to run a quick slant pattern, as if this were a short-yardage situation. "The call came in the huddle, and we all looked at each other like, Why run the quick slant?" Parker said. "I figured we were trying to get a little closer for a [tying] field goal." It never came to that. Parker, a six-foot, 195-pounder who has the fastest hand-timed 40-yard dash (4.24) of any Texas A&M player ever, delivered much more. He slipped past K-State cornerback Jerametrius Butler after catching quarterback Branndon Stewart's pass at the 27-yard line and kept free safety Lamar Chapman at bay long enough with a stiff arm to race to the pylon.
Parker's dream-come-true touchdown put the Aggies in the Sugar Bowl, where they will face Ohio State. Shell-shocked Kansas State, meanwhile, not only fell out of a national title game matchup against Tennessee but also suffered the indignity on Sunday of being relegated to the Alamo Bowl, against Purdue, after being passed over by the Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Holiday bowls.
"This may be, in their young lives, the most difficult tiling they've had to handle," Wildcats coach Bill Snyder said of his players following the game, his words punctuated by the sniffling of senior linebacker Jeff Kelly, who sat to Snyder's left. "The pain that comes from this comes from having such an investment, an emotional investment far greater than anyone can imagine."
"It almost seemed too good to be true," Wildcats wide receiver Aaron Lockett said of the opportunity Kansas State squandered. "Things like that happen to the elite few. We were hoping to be in the elite few."
Perhaps someday they will be. Other first-rank programs have found the road to national championships pockmarked by embarrassing losses. Florida State endured Wide Right I and II before winning the 1993 title. Nebraska suffered humiliations by Miami and Florida State in the Orange Bowl before finishing No. 1 in three of the last four years. Florida lost 62-24 to the Huskers in the '95 title game and then won it all the next year. But, boy, Kansas State was close.
Midway through the second quarter, moments after quarterback Michael Bishop had connected with Darnell McDonald on a 66-yard touchdown pass to put Kansas State ahead 17-3, the public address announcer had given the predominantly purple-clad K-State crowd news it so desperately wanted to hear: "Ladies and gentlemen, a final score: Miami 49, UCLA 45." Both the crowd and the Wildcats bench erupted. K-State merely had to hold on to its two-touchdown lead to reach the national championship game. "I noticed what they did," Aggies linebacker Dat Nguyen said of the Wildcats' reaction. "The thing that went through my mind was that they still had to go through us. They had to finish the game first."
A five-yard touchdown run by Bishop in the last minute of the third quarter increased Kansas State's lead to 27-12. Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum responded by getting bolder. He told offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, "Just throw."
Stewart, a fifth-year senior who had gone 0 for 5 with an interception in the first quarter, was having another disappointing game in a career full of them. A native of Stephenville, Texas, he had signed with Tennessee in 1994 and got playing time as a freshman as did his better-known classmate Peyton Manning. Once Manning became the starter, however, he didn't come out for four years. Stewart transferred to A&M after his freshman season and had an 18-10 record before Slocum benched him at mid-season in favor of junior Randy McCown. But McCown suffered a hairline fracture of the collarbone in a loss at Texas on Nov. 27 and was unable to play.
Stewart hadn't taken a snap in two games. Against K-State, the more he played, the better he got. Time and again, he found receivers going deep up the middle, and he narrowed the score to 27-19 on a 13-yard pass to wideout Leroy Hodge with 9:20 to go. Stewart, who finished 15 of 31 for 324 yards, clearly outplayed Bishop, a Heisman Trophy finalist, in the clutch. Indeed, Bishop's difficulties holding on to the ball surfaced at a crucial time. His second fumble against A&M occurred at the Wildcats' 35 with 2:26 left. Aggies linebacker Cornelius Anthony recovered the ball, and five plays later Parker tied the game with his first touchdown and his conversion catch, his first points since September.