December 22, 2013
By Kelly McHugh
Over the summer, Ryan Mueller sat down and made a list of his goals for the upcoming 2013 season. There was no goal too big, no achievement too great for the junior defensive end as he looked forward to what was, then, a blank slate ahead.
"If you look at my goal sheet at the beginning of the season, you probably would have laughed in my face," Mueller said to the media circled around him while laughing. "But every season I write down goals for myself that I want to accomplish. Everything is on there - a lot of personal goals, on and off the field goals. I want to be the best player and person for this team that I can possibly be."
Though his Cinderella story at K-State has been drawing attention since his infamous sack, strip and recovery play against Baylor in October - which is among the Big 12's best plays this season - the walk-on turned scholarship player turned starter has now become one of the Wildcats' most important team leaders.
"I expect the best from myself, I expect the best from my teammates, because if you don't expect it from yourself who else is going to expect it from you?" he asked.
Mueller played a key role as a team leader this season as he helped K-State turn around a 2-4 start to a 7-5 finish. He ended the regular season with 11.5 sacks - tied for the K-State single-season record with Nyle Wiren (1996) and Ian Campbell (2006) - while his 18.5 tackles for loss ranked the best in the Big 12 during the regular season.
Once the calendar flipped to December, both the Big 12 and the national media began announcing their individual accolades for the NCAA's top performers, and it was no surprise when Ryan Mueller's name was among those recognized.
All-Big 12 - check. 2013 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year - check. All American - check.
Mueller's goal list became smaller and smaller as he received recognition for the hard work he put into this past season.
But while the individual accolades were certainly on Mueller's 'season goals list,' they didn't rank first in order of importance. To Mueller, K-State isn't about just his game and what he can do - it's about the team, the family.
It's about finishing the season strong and overcoming obstacles together. He has high standards for himself, but he also has high standards for his teammates, and credits his success to their support on and off the field.
"It's a huge compliment to the guys that I play with on Saturdays, the guys who help me earn those awards," Mueller said about his teammates. "If I make a play here and there, well good for me, but the game of football is such a team sport, so (the accolades) are a credit to Kansas State University and my teammates."
While Mueller had the opportunity to check those individual accolades off his list for the first time in his career, there is something else he hopes to check off for the first time: win a bowl game.
Besides the few seniors who were around during the 2009 season, a majority of this year's squad knows no other postseason life but traveling to and competing in bowl matchups. Next weekend's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl competition between K-State and Michigan will mark the Wildcats' fourth consecutive bowl berth.
While the team has been successful enough in previous seasons to make it to these bowls (Pinstripe in 2010, Cotton in 2011 and Fiesta in 2012), it has never come out on top in the season's final game.
"We're so tired of it," Mueller began. "My freshman year at the Pinstripe Bowl, I didn't even play a down. It was our first time going to a bowl game in a long time, and I didn't really understand how big going to a bowl game was. Then I was in the locker room after the loss and Coach Snyder came in and talked. That's when I really started to think, 'Wow, this coach has been coaching for so long and his bowl record doesn't speak for how great of a coach he is, how great of a mentor he is to young people,' and as a player, internally, I felt like, 'What can I do, as a player to get this coach a win at a bowl game and end the season on a positive note?' because he hasn't really had too many of those."
Snyder is 7-7 in bowl games during his time at K-State, and the Wildcats have not produced a bowl victory since 2002.
"And then the Cotton Bowl: same scenario, ended the season with a loss. And then the Fiesta Bowl: same thing, loss. I'm tired of that feeling after the game," Mueller continued. "So this bowl game will lead to another opportunity, and hopefully we can finally celebrate a victory."
Facing the Michigan Wolverines (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten), Mueller and the Wildcat defense will have to overcome an offense that is known for its solid performance on the ground.
While Mueller anticipates the Wolverines will bring their toughness to the field, he has no doubt that his team will as well.
"Football is football. They are tough, we are tough. It is going to be a good dog fight," explained Mueller. "As far as comparing them to any team, I cannot really pinpoint an exact team, but I know that they are a tough football team."
It's the first time ever that K-State and Michigan will meet on the gridiron and will be the last opportunity for the 2013 Wildcats to shine.
But to the talented, team-focused, hard-working Mueller, next weekend is all about one thing: win.
"I want to end the season on a positive note and feel what that locker room feels like versus the other team celebrating, pouring Gatorade on their coach and wearing those championship hats," he said. "I want to pour Gatorade on Coach Snyder."