1036 total votes.
Kansas football used some strong defense late and high-powered offense throughout to top Southern Mississippi and finish its non-conference slate undefeated.
Mark Mangino was standing behind a podium Saturday, and he was talking about his defense, and he was doing this in a rather un-Mangino-like fashion.
He was using words like “phenomenal” and “stellar,” and this was a bit odd, because, well, these are not the kinds of words Kansas University’s eighth-year football coach typically chooses to use in describing any part of his football team. They are not, for instance, “work in progress” or “unfinished product” — popular Mangino phrases that hint at some sort of untapped potential or ongoing struggle toward proficiency.
The kindly adjectives seemed applicable enough, however, following a performance in which the team’s defense — with the usually dependable offense unable to convert late — overcame a slow start to register four straight fourth-quarter stands and help the Jayhawks hold on for a 35-28 victory Saturday over the previously unbeaten Golden Eagles.
“They just stayed with it and stayed with it and got beat on plays, but never got discouraged, never got down, had faith in themselves and their coaches,” Mangino said. “And it turned out they played a phenomenal fourth quarter.”
Nowhere was this more evident than on the Golden Eagles’ final drive.
Following a stalled Kansas series and subsequent punt, Southern Miss. took over on its own 33-yard line with 1:53 remaining and a chance — with a score and two-point conversion — to return to Hattiesburg, Miss., with a signature victory and 4-0 start.
For Kansas, this wasn’t exactly a gimme situation. Even without running back Tory Harrison, who left the game in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, the Golden Eagles had rolled up 363 yards and 28 points through three quarters, at times exposing a Kansas pass defense that had spent the season’s first three weeks beating up on clearly overmatched opponents.
When it mattered most, however, the Jayhawks clamped down.
Southern Mississippi’s first two plays resulted in just three yards. A third-down sack by defensive end Jake Laptad — the Jayhawks’ only sack of the game — set up a fourth-and-15 situation, meanwhile, and USM quarterback Austin Davis’ next pass fell harmlessly incomplete to propel the Jayhawks to their own 4-0 start for only the second time since 1995.
“You talk about needing every guy on the team for all four quarters to win the game, and that’s what today was,” said KU quarterback Todd Reesing, who completed 30 of 41 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns and surpassed former Texas standout Vince Young for seventh on the Big 12’s all-time total-offense list. “It took everybody out there playing hard from the first snap to the last snap to win the game, and the defense came up huge at the end.”
While it was the team’s final stand that ultimately secured victory, however, it was the defense’s collection of fourth-quarter work that provoked Mangino’s liberal use of complimentary adjectives.
Kansas’ young defensive unit hung tough on all four of its fourth-quarter appearances, giving up just 32 yards of total offense in the final 15 minutes while not allowing Southern Miss. to advance pass its own 43-yard line.
On their first drive of the quarter, trailing 35-28, the Golden Eagles worked their way to their own 43 before KU defensive back and former Free State standout Ryan Murphy intercepted a pass from USM’s Davis.
Murphy came up big again on the Golden Eagles’ next possession, wrapping up USM running back Leroy Banks after a one-yard gain on third-and-three to force a punt.
And on the Golden Eagles’ next series, Kansas forced three consecutive incomplete passes before Southern Miss. punted for the final time.
“When you get down to the end of the game, you’ve got to have guts,” said Laptad, who has been in on a sack in each of the team’s first four games. “You’ve got to stop them ... and each player needs to play like they’re the (guy) that needs to make the play.”
Still, Saturday’s game was far from perfect. Kansas’ running game, which entered the weekend ranked second in the conference and piled up 92 first-half yards Saturday, managed just 10 yards in the second half. The Jayhawks turned the ball over nearly as many times (two) as they had in their previous three games combined (three), while it’s worth mentioning, too, that the team’s defense began trulyt o click late in the game, when, in addition to Harrison, fellow USM standouts Darion Fletcher and receiver DeAndre Brown also were forced to the sideline, dealing with bumps and bruises of their own.
Given all that, however, there was a certain sense of excitement in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.
The team had entered the season with four nonconference games on its schedule, after all, and had found a way to win each of them — something that can’t be said for many of the nation’s top teams so far this young season.
“There are a lot of people out there that are getting upset, all over the nation,” Reesing said. “They’ve got some high rankings, and they’re not holding true to them. So I think a win, at this point in college football, is as high as it gets.”
And minor issues aside, Mangino appears to be heading into his team’s bye week pleased with the current state of affairs — particularly, a defense that had undergone its first true test of the season and emerged unscathed.
“I thought we took a big step today in becoming a mature defense,” Mangino said. “We have some work to do, but I think it was a big step.”