It’s been 361 days since the Kansas University football team opened the Turner Gill era with a loss to North Dakota State in front of a stunned Memorial Stadium crowd.
To many, the memory of the 6-3 setback remains fresh.
To the players who were there that night — in uniform, on the field — just talking about the game is tough to do in specific terms. Senior tight end Tim Biere, who played what he called one of the worst games of his life in the loss, refers to it only vaguely.
“I had a heck of a game that game,” said Biere, never mentioning the name of the opponent. “We’ll be sure to remember that game from last year. It’s kind of the same situation to an extent.”
The it, in this case, is KU’s season opener against McNeese State, slated for 6 p.m. Saturday at the same stadium where the Jayhawks were the victims of one of the worst losses in program history. The reason Biere referenced North Dakota State when looking ahead to Saturday’s matchup with McNeese State was because, like the Bison, the Cowboys come to Lawrence wearing the label of FCS opponent, one of the most dangerous tags any FBS program can see early in the season.
It’s not that the Jayhawks, or any other BCS conference squad, should be worried that they can’t compete with teams from the division formerly known as I-AA. It’s that playing those teams presents a lose-lose scenario just about every time. Win and it’s no big deal. You did what you were supposed to. But lose? Well, then people will be talking about that game for years to come.
In the days since the loss to NDSU, Gill and the Jayhawks have talked very little about it. The key, Gill has said all along, is that the team learned from the deflating feeling and pressed on, determined not to let it take place again.
“They know what has happened in the past,” Gill said Tuesday at his first weekly news conference of the season. “We talk about what you can learn from last year and how you are going to change that. More importantly, we’re talking about how we already have changed it.”
The approach appears to have worked.
“I don’t think we’ve paid too much attention to it,” said junior wide receiver Kale Pick, the starting QB in the NDSU game. “It’s obviously in our players’ heads. I think the best thing is we used it as motivation in the offseason. I think that’s the best thing that came from it, and it may have helped us out in the long run.”
Added this year’s starting quarterback, sophomore Jordan Webb: “I think we learned that we don’t have a suit of armor that’s gonna protect us from a I-AA team. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, at this level you gotta come out ready to play. You can’t wait until it’s the second or third game to get things kick-started.”
While it’s obvious that those who played in the loss felt the sting, those who didn’t were equally affected. That includes junior Toben Opurum, a former running back who suited up but did not play in last year’s opener.
“That loss, I kind of took it to heart more than anybody else because I didn’t get a chance to step on the field and play,” said Opurum, who revealed Tuesday that he considered transferring after being moved to defense. “They were back and forth on whether to red-shirt me.”
Darius Willis, a transfer from Buffalo who sat out all of 2010 in accordance with NCAA transfer rules but was able to practice, remembers well the feeling the Jayhawks had heading into the North Dakota State game. He said the vibe is completely different this season.
“You can tell there’s more focus,” he said. “Everybody is driving to be where they need to be and doing the right things at the right time. No one is letting distractions come into play.”
By all accounts, McNeese State has more talent, speed and big-game experience than North Dakota State brought to Lawrence a year ago.
“I can’t speak for their defense,” said KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy. “But their offense looks more like a Div. I, major conference athletic talent.”
Combine the painful memories of last year’s devastation with the utmost respect for a quality opponent and it’s easy to see why the Jayhawks have put so much emphasis on this year’s opener.
“Nobody wants a repeat of the failures we had last season,” Opurum said. “We want to go out there aggressive and with confidence. We gotta hit ’em first.”
Added senior cornerback Isiah Barfield: “(Falling to NDSU) was a huge setback on our season, losing the first game of the year and we gotta come out more focused and ready to play so we can get the first ‘W’ right away.”