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December 30, 2010

Controversial call looms large in loss

NEW YORK -- The act is encouraged during the national anthem. It's mandatory in the military and smiled upon on country roads everywhere. But a salute, even a brief one, is not welcome at a football game inside Yankee Stadium.

At least not on Thursday.

With his Kansas State team trailing by eight points in the waning moments of its 36-34 Pinstripe Bowl loss to Syracuse, senior wide receiver Adrian Hilburn found six points on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Carson Coffman, dropped the ball at his side and raised a hand to his forehead in the direction of the crowd. The act seems subtle enough.

In this situation, though, the price tag on the gesture was hefty: The 15-yard penalty forced K-State to attempt a game-tying two-point conversion from the 18. It failed. The call also elicited some tears from the senior who suddenly found himself standing at the center of a New York-style controversy.

"I was just balling when it happened," Hillburn, whose last play as a Wildcat will forever be remembered for "The Salute", said. "I feel like I let the team down. It was at the very end and it was on me. I blame myself.

"A lot of my teammates came up to me and told me that was a bull call. Those guys are going to back me up for the rest of my life.

With the necessary two-point conversion attempt set up 15 yards farther away from pay dirt than normal, Coffman's next pass sailed out of the corner of the end zone and fell to the ground along with K-State's last hope for victory.

If the yellow flag thrown on the field the play before was used to smother the joy bellowing out of the purple-clad clan in the stands, the failed two-point attempt buried it in a shallow grave. It was quickly out of sight, but the smell lingered around for a while after the final whistle.

"It was the salute, which was the judgment of the calling officials, which were the head linesman and the back judge," said Todd Geerlings, the chief of the game's Big 10 officiating crew. "Two officials threw the flag, both judged it to be drawing attention to themselves, and that's what the flag was for."

Asked three straight times about the incident following the game, head coach Bill Snyder went out of way to avoid speaking his mind. "I can't comment on that," he said, and followed up by tossing out an admission.

"I'm really having a hard time avoiding that issue," he added, leaving little room for interpretation when it came to his feelings.

In poetically tragic fashion, the call was the perfect end to an imperfect week.

Forced to workout in a hotel ballroom four days before the game and made to spend hours on busses to get to back and fourth from practice on two other occasions, Snyder's Wildcats started their bowl-season bar fight long before kickoff. What took place on the Yankee Stadium field was simply its culmination -- a slow-motion scene that depicted a final burst of effort coming up just short.

"I'm proud of our players," Snyder said. "I'm proud that we didn't just die on the vine."

The set matched the script flawlessly. Snow was shoved into nine-foot piles behind each team's sideline, as the first annual Pinstripe Bowl was played against the backdrop of a blizzard's aftermath. It unfolded on a slick field, one that forced defenders to slip and caused quarterbacks to occasionally fall down without contact. In a way, the surface kept with a theme.

"We have to take what we were dealt, that's what we did," defensive back David Garrett said. "Of course practicing in a hotel and sitting in buses all day is going to have an effect on you, but we're not going to use that stuff as an excuse."

Unforgiving, cold and relentless; the inaugural event's physical atmosphere matched the product put on display by a pair of teams that stood face-to-face and head butted each other for nearly four hours in the winter weather.

It had to be exhausting. Thursday's game featured three ties, a 198-yard day for Syracuse tailback Delone Carter, a handful of successful trick plays, 877 combined offensive yards and a quatrain of lead changes, the last of which came in the final quarter courtesy of a 45-yard bomb from Ryan Nassib to Marcus Sales, who finished with a career-high 172 receiving yards and three scores.

But it wasn't the go-ahead touchdown that ensured K-State would leave the Big Apple trophy-less. While it was the salute that sealed that casket for good, an ill-advised gadget play just minutes before certainly didn't help matters.

Trailing 33-28 with less than six minutes to play, K-State's fake field goal attempt on fourth-and-5 from the Orange's 11-yard line lost three yards when holder Ryan Doerr barreled directly into the teeth of the Syracuse defensive line.

Not even the hungriest man in the stadium entertained the idea of biting on the fake for so much as an instant.

"In hindsight, I realize that wasn't a good call," Snyder said. "That was my fault, not our players' fault."

In his last game in a college uniform, tailback Daniel Thomas scrapped his way to 90 rushing yards and three rushing touchdown, while moving into second place on the school's career rushing list.

Thomas shuts the door on his two-year K-State career with 2,850 yards on the ground, 1,585 of which came this season. Meanwhile, his Wildcat team finishes its campaign with a 7-6 record, a mark that ties the school's best since 2003.


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