The Day After: A memorable win over Iowa State
Saturday afternoon marked just the ninth victory in the career of KU linebacker Ben Heeney and the senior captain could not have cared less about it because it felt like a million bucks.
The biggest reason for that, Heeney said, was because it marked interim head coach Clint Bowen's first career victory as the KU leader and that's something these players have been battling for since Bowen took over for Charlie Weis in late September.
That was by far the biggest storyline on Saturday night, as the statistics, big-time plays, ebbs and flows of the game tiny details all took a backseat to Bowen's big win. Players, staff members, fans and family celebrated the victory with great joy and, although some probably thought the whole scene was a bit of overkill given the fact that the win came against a 2-7 team, nobody in crimson and blue was apologizing for it and you can't take away the fact that the Jayhawks played very well from the opening whistle to secure their third victory of the season.
The road gets harder from here — flat-out frightening, in fact — but several guys said last year's upset win over West Virginia that snapped a 27-game Big 12 losing skid breathed new life into the program and helped them approach the final weeks of the season with new hope and confidence. It didn't wind up mattering, but that team wasn't led by Bowen.
The Jayhawks beat a bad football team on Saturday afternoon, but they did so convincingly and were clearly the better, more confident, more talented football team. The way things have gone for Kansas football lately, bad team or not, a win is worth celebrating, particularly when that win comes as a result of the Jayhawks playing well. They did so in just about every facet of the game on Saturday and showed a little glimpse into why they had such high hopes for this season when it began two months ago.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Because everyone else was. The haters, skeptics, die-hard fans and cautiously optimistic followers of the KU football program all saw eye-to-eye for a few minutes after Saturday's 34-14 victory over Iowa State. The mistakes didn't matter, the scary moments in the third quarter were irrelevant and the nasty schedule that lies ahead was not on anyone's mind. All that mattered was the joy and smiles and celebrations on the field, in the locker room and around the stadium for a group of players, coaches and fans who absolutely deserved an outcome like the one they got on Saturday. I'm sure the differing viewpoints have sorted themselves out again by now, but at least for a while, everyone involved with KU football had a chance to be on the same winning page.
2 – The KU defense was nasty and guys not named Ben Heeney made plays all over the place. Sure, Heeney led the team with seven tackles and played his usual all-over-the-place type of game, but half a dozen other guys on the KU defense out-shined their leader in this one and that made things nearly impossible for the Cyclones. JaCorey Shepherd (5 tackles, 5 pass break-ups, 1 interception) was as good as he's ever been, Dexter McDonald held up his end of the bargain on the other side of the field, Victor Simmons (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass break-up) had the game of his life, Jake Love had a sack and a pass break-up, Courtney Arnick had five tackles, one for a loss and two pass break-ups and Michael Reynolds had another sack and forced fumble and continued his stellar streak of games. In short, this defense played the way you would expect to see from a defense that listed “being the top defense” in the Big 12 as one of its goals before the season began. Sure, it was against a struggling offense and their back-up quarterback, but they still delivered time after time after time.
3 – KU's offense featured all kinds of play-makers, but few were as impressive as junior receiver Nigel King. King finished with 101 yards on five receptions and made arguably the biggest catch of the game, a 42-yard grab on third-and-19 that set up a touchdown that pushed KU's lead from 24-14 to 31-14 and essentially served as the knockout blow. King got open all afternoon, was tough to bring down and used his incredibly strong hands to rip the ball out of the air when it came his way. The Jayhawks are losing a lot of offensive players from this year's team, but having King back next season will be huge.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Senior offensive lineman Ngalu Fusimalohi left the game with some sort of right leg injury and it's not yet known how serious the injury is. The last place the Jayhawks can afford to lose a starter is on the offensive line, but that's especially true of Fusimalohi, who has started every game since arriving in Lawrence and is one of the Jayhawks' strongest players in the trenches.
2 – KU's kickoff return game still looks sub-par. JaCorey Shepherd is a dynamic player and a great athlete and I can't imagine that the Jayhawks' issues here rest with him. It just seems that every time the Jayhawks return a kickoff they struggle mightily to get it back to the 20 yard line, and that's whether they take it from the goal line or the 6 or 7. It doesn't make sense. But it has to be some sort of breakdown in the blocking in front of Shepherd because he almost always runs into a wall of three or four coverage guys before reaching the 20.
3 – It's easy to look at what Michael Cummings has done in the past four or five games and be happy for the guy and impressed by his ability, toughness and heart. It's equally as easy to look at Cummings and exhale violently when it hits you that, if just given a chance, this guy could have been a difference maker for the past couple of KU teams. Cummings isn't the best quarterback in the league and he'll never catch your eye as someone you desperately want to have as your quarterback, but he's a gamer and he's been considerably better in the past five weeks than anything KU's put out there in a long time and you can't help but wonder how much farther along he'd be if he'd been given this kind of chance a little earlier.
One for the road
Saturday's 34-14 victory over Iowa State...
• Pushed KU into a tie for eighth place in the Big 12 standings with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders own the tiebreaker and neither eighth or ninth place is worth bragging about, but it would be a small sign of progress.
• Improved KU's lead in the series to 50-38-6, including a 28-16-3 advantage in games played in Lawrence.
• Moved Kansas to 579-595-58 all-time.
• Gave KU just its third Big 12 Conference victory in the post-Mark Mangino era (41 games).
KU will face arguably its biggest test of the season when No. 6 TCU comes to town for a 2 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium and what will be the final home game in the careers of some pretty memorable KU seniors.