Anatomy Of An Upset: The 1998 Alamo Bowl

29 Dec 1998: Quarterback Michael Bishop #7 of the Kansas State Wildcats in action during the Alamo Bowl Game against the Purdue Boilermakers at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. The Boilermakers defeated the Wildcats 37-34. (Stephen Dunn / Allsport)

I hate that I basically had to drop this series when it was just getting started, but that's what happens when you do the math and realize you have to complete six team profiles per week to finish before the season begins. Consider this a priority, perhaps, for the next offseason. But in the meantime, I wanted to briefly discuss memes, particularly those emerging from Purdue's epic 37-34 upset of No. 4 Kansas State in 1998.

We like to boil results down to a single theme. The one emerging, basically, from this game was that a) Kansas State played like they didn't want to be there, and b) Drew Brees killed them. Hell, it even made it into the AP recap:

The Kansas State Wildcats never wanted to be in the Alamo Bowl - and it showed by the way they played most of the game.

[...]

"I feel for every player in that (locker) room, every coach and every Kansas State fan that showed up here in San Antonio," said Wildcats coach Bill Snyder. "Tonight was the culmination of three weeks of disappointment."

In fact, the Wildcats seemed to play the first three quarters as if they resented even being in this game. Their 21 points in the fourth quarter was the only thing that kept them from being blown out.

In watching this game on Big Ten Network this past weekend, however, that's not what I saw. What I saw was a team that won because of two things: 1) One single, distinct, devastating matchup advantage, and 2) Truth No. 1 on this list.

What A Difference A Single Advantage Can Make

As a whole, most of Kansas State's stars played like they had for most of the Wildcats' incredible 11-0 start; David Allen rushed for 83 yards on 13 carries and was as terrifying as ever on punt returns. (Purdue did a nice job corralling him on kickoffs.) Darnell McDonald caught an 88-yard bomb. Purdue's 235 yards were the least they would record in a game for five years (thanks, Random Big Ten Network tidbit!). So many of the components in this game worked entirely as planned. But Kansas State simply had no answer for ends Roosevelt Colvin and Chike Okeafor. None.

The K-State line had handled Justin Smith and Missouri, Aaron Humphrey and Texas, Kyle VandenBosch and Nebraska and (for the most part) Dat Nguyen, Warrick Holdman and Texas A&M. But Colvin cut through them like the proverbial hot knife through butter, Okeafor cleaned up the messes, and Bishop had his head taken out of the game. He was either getting sacked or throwing picks seemingly every time he dropped back to pass. One single matchup disadvantage destroyed K-State's gameplan. Were the Wildcats prepared enough? Maybe, maybe not. But all the preparation in the world can fall apart if you can't stop two ends from destroying every passing play.

By the way, Drew Brees had, for all intents and purposes, a terrible game. Here was his passing line before his final three passes of the game: 22-for-50, 175 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT. By my calculations, that is a passer rating of 41.7 and a per-attempt average of 3.5. Or, to put it another way, that is a terrible game. But when you let somebody hang around long enough, they can eventually make the plays to burn you; Brees' final three passes went for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Because Purdue caught fire early, they were able to steal the game late.

The First Half Matters So, So Much

From the Four Truths column I linked above:

If you run correlations between situational S&P+ statistics and win percentage, you see quite a few first- and second-quarter statistics near the top of the list. For instance, second-quarter Offensive S&P+ and first-quarter Defensive S&P+ had almost exactly the same correlation to winning as overall S&P+ did. From a statistical standpoint, the first half carries far more weight than the second, because, quite simply, with a bad first half, the second half might not matter much (unless you are Jacksonville State playing Ole Miss).

This is, of course, how sports mostly operate. We remember a given Game 7, but there would be no seventh game if you don't win three other games first. You probably don't pull off a dramatic, memorable overtime victory if you fall down by four touchdowns in the first half (unless your quarterback is Frank Reich). You don't notch the World Series-winning save in the ninth if you don't build a lead in the first eight (or eight and a half) innings. We remember the games that are decided late, but more often, the biggest impact on a game occurs in the first 30 minutes.

In an upset bid, the "you can't win the game in the first half, but you can lose it" adage applies to an incredible degree. In going up 17-7 at halftime, Purdue didn't win the game, but they built a cushion big enough that, even when K-State began to roll in the fourth quarter, they were still close enough to win the game with a last-second drive. That's how a lot of upsets work -- the underdog lands a few serious uppercuts early on, then makes the bare minimum number of plays down the stretch to sneak out the win. Sure, you've got your Ole Miss-Jacksonville State, "the favorite goes up by 21 points, then completely falls asleep" games, but most of the time the underdog builds an early lead them holds on for dear life.

The best teams are the ones most capable of putting weaker games away in the first half before they can fool themselves into believing they can win. And that's exactly what Kansas State did for the season's first nine games -- they beat opponents (including a nine-win Texas team and eight-win Colorado) by an average of 52-8. Only Colorado stayed within 32 points. But after tough, late wins over Nebraska and Missouri and a late loss to Texas A&M, K-State was just flat enough, and faced just enough matchup issues, that they were unable to land a knockout blow, or any blow, really, in the first half.

Summary

So what was the point of this? Well ... I watched the game and wanted to talk about it, basically. Beyond that, though, I really was surprised in watching this again because I didn't see a flat KSU team going through the motions. I saw a semi-desperate KSU team attempting to react to a matchup problem they didn't see coming and overcome some silly plays (sacks, interceptions, a fumbled exchange that Purdue recovered in the end zone for a touchdown). I saw a KSU team that finally put things together in time to win the game ... and I saw a Purdue team with a young, soon-to-be-great quarterback who held on for dear life and made a gorgeous pass at the end. Helluva game.

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