Kansas coach Turner Gill talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 47-17 loss to Oklahoma on Oct. 15, 2011.
It sounds absurd to talk about a football team taking a step forward on a night in which it allowed 610 yards and 47 points, a night in which it had one second-half first down and lost by 30 points, but the fact is Kansas University looked significantly better Saturday in a 47-17 loss to Oklahoma in Memorial Stadium.
For this night at least, with the nation’s No. 3 team in town, the Jayhawks did nothing to be mistaken for a punching bag, nothing to qualify as a punch line in a joke about ineptitude.
“Only thing I can say is, I love my defense, and I love this team, and we fought,” senior inside linebacker Steven Johnson said. “After this game, I’m walking out of here with my head held high because we got a lot better.”
He’s right about that. The defense, particularly in the red zone, performed far better than it had in losses to Georgia Tech, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
Johnson was in on 13 tackles, one for a three-yard loss, and made an impressive interception. More teammates than usual brought the same intensity and passion on this night.
When Johnson talks about this team, 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big 12, he makes his coach, Turner Gill, sound like a pessimist by comparison. Johnson gets carried away. Before the losses began to mount he talked about winning a national championship and then about winning a Big 12 title. In short, he believes.
“After the game, when we talked as a defense, we felt as though, hey, we shouldn’t lose any more games,” Johnson said.
That, of course, is fantasy-based talk. But the way Kansas competed in the first half, trailing just 27-17, the chance of winning a Big 12 game took on a more realistic feel.
The defense, put in a better position by the coaching staff because things were simplified, looked faster.
Inside linebacker Darius Willis, the transfer from Buffalo, stood out, as did safety Bradley McDougald and outside linebacker Toben Opurum.
True freshmen mixed in — linebacker Collin Garrett and safety Victor Simmons also played a part in the defense having a sleeker look.
Sure, Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles had a Heisman Trophy-like night, but he’s a cut above anybody KU has on its roster, and the mix of a stale pass rush, an Isiah Barfield misstep here and there and the fresh arm of Landry Jones made that a combustible mix that won’t occur every week.
Gill, disappointed because “a loss is a loss,” acknowledged improvement. Defensive coordinator Vic Shealy wasn’t doing backflips, which is a good thing because the way his year has gone he might get hurt if he tried that.
“I don’t know if we played that good,” Shealy said. “You give up 600 yards and 47 points, that’s not a standard that makes you feel good.”
Still, one week after Kansas allowed eight first-half touchdowns on Oklahoma State’s eight first-half possessions, the difference was easy to see.
“I thought we made more plays,” Shealy said. “Until the last two scoring drives, third down was better.”
And for a half, the running game shined against a defense that held Florida State to 27 rushing yards and Texas to 36.
Freshmen Darrian Miller, he of the phenomenal balance, and Tony Pierson, such a burner, helped James Sims in giving KU 168 first-half rushing yards. The Sooners dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half, and Kansas regressed to a final total of 144 rushing yards for the night.
Still, as 30-point losses go, this wasn’t a bad one.