All season, as the Kansas University football team has piled tough loss on top of tough loss, people, both inside and outside of the program, have preached progress.
It’s one thing to see it in a 20-14 comeback loss against Oklahoma State in which the Jayhawks woke up after carving out a 20-0 hole through three quarters. It’s another to see it in a near victory against Texas, a game KU should have won. And it’s still another to see it in several first halves in which the Jayhawks remained within arm’s reach — down just six or seven points at the break — of quality opponents such as Kansas State, Baylor and TCU.
Even with all of those signs pointing in the right direction for a program desperate to shake its losing culture, never was this team’s evolution from flops to fighters as evident as last Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, where the Jayhawks (1-9 overall, 0-7 Big 12) went toe to toe with the 25th-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders before losing, 41-34, in double overtime.
We’re not talking about giving a nice effort and hanging in there against a better team. We’re talking about seeing a you-punch-we-punch, you-score-we-score, you-dig-we-dig-deeper mentality that has been building in the KU locker room slowly and steadily throughout the season.
It wasn’t just the final score or the fact that KU actually had a lead in the first overtime that showed yet more evidence of this team’s growth under first-year coach Charlie Weis. It was the way these guys played. Tough, physical, relentless football from the first quarter to the final extra period.
Were there mistakes? Sure. Plenty of them. But the Jayhawks overcame each one and refused to let the game get away from them despite trailing 21-7 early in the second quarter with Texas Tech driving for the knockout punch.
In the world of college football, winning is the name of the game. And no matter how much the Jayhawks have improved, they continue to fall short in the area it matters most. But one of the best things about progress is that it can inspire players to continue to work hard no matter what their record is because they can see and feel the improvements they’re making. This Kansas roster is full of players like that. Young and old. And it is coached by a group of men who know how to emphasize and celebrate those steps and learn from mistakes.
During the past two seasons we heard a lot about progress but saw very little evidence that any was being made. Anyone remember the net punting brag? The Jayhawks don’t have to grasp for straws like that any longer. They still have a ways to go before they can be considered a quality team with a shot at consistently winning in the Big 12. But they are competitive. And they are getting there. They are capable of preparing a gameplan that can deliver a victory against any team just about every week. And it seems safe to say that the rest of the conference now knows that.
Although this type of season and the promise of progress is not exactly what most of these guys were hoping for, it was and is a necessary step toward turning things around.
I think the players and coaches all realize that. But none of them are content with it.
“It puts a bad taste in our mouths,” said red-shirt freshman quarterback Michael Cummings of the double-overtime loss to Tech. “We’re definitely more hungry going into next week.”
Added Weis, who spoke with pride about the toughness shown by his club last Saturday: “We were extremely motivated in this game. And I think we’ll be even more motivated for next Saturday.”
That’s when the Jayhawks will play host to Iowa State at 6 p.m. in the final home game for 23 seniors at Memorial Stadium.
Weis, on Sunday, made a plea for people to pack the house — not for him, but for those seniors who have given all they have for four or more seasons and got very little in return in terms of feel-good moments.
Filling Memorial Stadium and standing as they take the field would be a cool way to cap of their careers. Will you be there?
Before moving on to this week's examination of Iowa State, here’s one last look at everything the KU running game accomplished last weekend: