If Kansas University's football season opener was a red-letter game, its home opener was a scarlet-letter game.
By the narrowest of margins, the Jayhawks were branded with a W, 23-20, over Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
"We really needed this win," KU senior outside linebacker Chaz Murphy said. "After SMU, we needed a win, any win. We need to steamroll Southern Illinois and have a full head of steam before the conference starts."
The victory over UAB was a fits-and-starts beginning on the Jayhawks' road to recovery from their opening loss at Southern Methodist.
Despite a bye week geared toward ironing out special-teams blunders that proved oh-so-costly at SMU, the Jayhawks seemed little improved in that area.
After taking a 14-0 lead with 5:26 left in the first quarter, a rash of penalties took the Jayhawks out of field-goal range and yet another punt-team blunder helped UAB (1-1) score 10 points in the final 2 minutes, 15 seconds of the half.
Punter Joey Pelfanio tried to field a low snap and lost it on a fumble instead, and UAB returned it 42 yards to pull within 14-7 with 2:15 left.
Then KU's Dylen Smith threw an interception that led to a 36-yard field goal, and the Jayhawks (1-1), who had a chance to build on their two-touchdown lead, limped into halftime full of self doubt clinging to a 14-10 advantage.
"You saw it. I saw it. Everybody saw it," an emotionally spent KU coach Terry Allen said. "When we had that snap and trouble with the punt team, all our confidence went away. Everybody's mindset went, 'Here we go again.'"
Imagine the mindset, then, when UAB scored 10 more unanswered points to complete a run of 20 straight to take its first lead at 20-14 with 14:09 left.
Though the Jayhawks responded immediately with a 59-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Roger Ross, kicker Joe Garcia, trying to put the worst season of his collegiate career behind him, missed the PAT kick, and KU and UAB who tied the NCAA longest-game record with a four-overtime thriller in 1998 were deadlocked again at 20-all.
"What happened was, Joe went a little early," Allen said of Garcia's wide-right attempt on what would have been the go-ahead PAT. "Joe got a little anxious and took a ministep and pushed it after that."
Even that, though, couldn't shake Allen's confidence in Garcia.
With just over six minutes left, the Jayhawks took 10-play, 55-yard drive that stalled on the UAB 33-yard line. Facing fourth and five after UAB coach Watson Brown inexplicably declined a holding penalty on the Jayhawks, Allen didn't hesitate to call on Garcia, whose career-long field goal of 51 yards came three seasons ago, to try a 50-yarder for the lead.
"I believe in Joe," Allen said. "He's had a good preseason. I thought with the way he'd been practicing, I thought he deserved to try to kick it. He knocked it through. That was an awfully big kick after a missed PAT."
Garcia didn't so much kick it through as will it.
"It was right down the middle," he said. "I was just praying it was long enough. I was running off the field praying it was long enough."
That wasn't the end to the calls to a higher power. KU which limited the Blazers to 238 yards of total offense and forced nine UAB punts held Alabama-Birmingham to 25 yards on eight plays on the next possession and took over on its own 13 with 2:45 to play.
The Jayhawks immediately notched a first down, but another holding call backed them up and, after just four plays, lined up for another hold-your-breath punt attempt.
Bob Schmidt, who replaced struggling Steve Kullberg as KU's long snapper at halftime, delivered a strike, and Pelfanio booted a 50-yarder to pin UAB on its own 17 with 1:20 left.
"I came very close to taking a safety," Allen said, proving the depth of his concern for his punt team. "But it was good for Joey to get that kick off."
UAB clawed its way to the Kansas 48 before Algie Atkinson sacked Blazers QB Daniel Dixon, and time ran out on the Jayhawks' first victory of the season.
"We knew what we had to do," said Atkinson, who was credited with two of the Jayhawks' five sacks. "We had a couple of problems, on snaps and special teams, but we fought through that."
Because they did, the Jayhawks will carry a 1-1 record into next Saturday's game against Div. I-AA Southern Illinois. Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
"Hey, a win's a win," KU senior linebacker Tim Bowers said. "We still had punt troubles. We still have lot of work to do. We have a lot of things to be fine-tuned. But it's a work in progress. We proved this isn't a team that's going to fold. It's a football game, and bad things happen to the No. 1 team in the nation and the worst team in the nation. We had an off night, but the sign of a good team is being able to win on an off night."
More: Box score and stats