On a cold, blustery Wednesday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Kansas University football team went through its final Wednesday practice of the 2014 season.
Just two practices remain before Saturday's game at Kansas State, which will bring to a close another KU football season filled with a couple of close calls and more disappointment.
There was nothing disappointing about the start of Wednesday's practice, which featured a World Cup-esque penalty-kick shootout-style punting drill involving some of the most unlikely candidates.
Ben Heeney and Nick Harwell were the captains for their respective squads in the best-of-five contest and Heeney was allowed only to pick offensive starters and Harwell only defensive starters. From there, the two sides took turns fielding punts from the mechanical punter to see which side could pick up the most grabs.
First up were Tony Pierson for Team Heeney and Dexter McDonald for Team Harwell. Pierson, as he's done several times throughout his playing days, dropped back and smoothly corralled the ball as it fell into his arms. McDonald, despite hearing from teammates how the pressure was on, followed suit and both teams were on the board.
Next up Jimmay Mundine for Team Heeney and Courtney Arnick for Team Harwell. Mundine also made his grab look smooth and Arnick, though under it in time, bobbled his try and watched it fall to the ground. 2-1, Heeney.
Now's when the fun really began. Next up: offensive lineman Junior Visinia for Team Heeney and defensive lineman Tedarian Johnson for Team Harwell. As the ball soared through the air and tracked into Visinia's area, the big freshman stuck his two hands out and speared the ball like a pig at a luau. No points for style here. A catch is a catch, and Junior's grab got the team fired up.
Needing to match Visinia to keep things tied, Johnson ran way too far in on his while it was in the air and watched it soar 15 yards behind him when it came down. 3-1, Team Heeney.
With Team Harwell needing to win the next two just to draw even, offensive lineman Larry Mazyck squared off for Team Heeney against D-lineman Keon Stowers for Team Harwell. Mazyck looked smooth as all get-out as he made his way to the ball but may have been a little too smooth on the catch and it fell to the ground, keeping Team Harwell alive. Stowers, however, could not capitalize, as his “ole'” attempt at the floating punt came up empty. Team Heeney put this one away, 3-1, with one kick left on the board.
Naturally, the KU offense exploded with joy over the victory and then went into the meat of practice.
Here's what caught my eye from the rest of the time I was out there:
• New father DeAndre Mann was a full participant and ran plenty of reps with the first string. Mann's absence has hurt the Jayhawks a little lately in that it's left the bulk of the running duties in the hands of true freshman Corey Avery. Avery has done well, but that's quite a load to handle and Mann's size, maturity and style certainly would've helped the KU running game. Maybe Saturday will be the day he gets a little momentum back to take into the 2015 season.
• Former KU linebacker Brandon Perkins (2002-05) showed up to practice to surprise interim coach Clint Bowen and the attempt worked. Bowen lit up when he saw Perkins and immediately had memories of a five-sack game for Perkins against Louisiana Tech in 2005. When Bowen asked Perkins what he was doing in town, the former KU linebacker said, “I came back for you, coach.” Perkins ranks fourth on KU's all-time sacks list with 20.
• Call it a hunch, but look for T.J. Semke to make an impact in Saturday's game. Listed behind Stowers as a second-string nose tackle along with Andrew Bolton, Semke looked to have a little extra nastiness to him during Wednesday's practice and seems like the kind of guy who would do well in a game like Saturday's.
• Finally, KU will practice on Thanksgiving but will go in the morning so the players can spend the afternoon of the holiday with their friends and families. Several guys from out of state will either spend the day with their teammates who have families nearby or with members of the KU coaching staff.
With one game left in his KU career, senior linebacker Ben Heeney did something drastic to try to bring a little luck the Jayhawks' way…. He shaved his beard.
The bearded Heeney has been a fixture around KU football for the past couple of seasons and the Hutchinson native has been known as much for the look as his dominating play on the field.
Wednesday, at the final media session of the season, though, Heeney walked in with a fresh shave an evil-genius smile.
Heeney said this week was the first time half of his teammates had seen him without the beard and even shared stories of veterans having to do a double-take when they walked past him in the locker room.
"Everyone's been turning their head because they didn't expect it to happen," he said. "I just kind of want to play a game without it and see what happens. I'm not just a beard, I'm also a human being."
Heeney said he had some fun with the shaving session earlier this week and left various forms of mustaches and snapped pictures of those with his cell phone before saying goodbye to the facial hair for good — at least for now.
"It was kind of spur of the moment and I was just like, 'Man, it's not bringing any good luck,' so I just wanted to shave it off and play a game without it and see if it brings any luck. Everyone's always been so all-about it, I was just kind of like, 'All right, this isn't all I am.'"
The Kansas University football team was drubbed on the road by Oklahoma on Saturday and it seems safe to say that very few people really saw the 44-7 beat-down coming.
For one, KU had built a little momentum of late, knocking off Iowa State in dominating fashion and nearly upsetting No. 5 TCU a week later. Thinking the Jayhawks would win in Norman was a reach, but expecting them to be competitive, give OU a tough battle and keep that momentum moving in the right direction seemed fair. Even a couple of national writers in the press box prior to the game remarked to me about how they figured KU would easily cover the 28-point spread.
They didn't. Not even close, really, as OU's superior size and ability to adjust to the inclement weather proved to be way too much for KU to handle. The offense did nothing. The defense was blown off the ball over and over as OU freshman Samaje Perine rumbled to an NCAA record and a whole mess of school records and the game was pretty much over by halftime, making the second half a mere formality.
This game was ugly. The Jayhawks never got anything going on offense, struggled even worse on defense and just looked outmanned from start to finish. Some people will want to blame Bowen for this one and he certainly deserves his share of the blame, but this was a total team collapse and the outcome won't move the needle much when looking at whether Bowen is the right guy for the KU coaching job, in much the same way that last week's near-upset of No. 5 TCU did not end with a contract landing on Bowen's desk. It's the big picture that matters here — Bowen's vision for the program, plans to execute that and ability to coach players, rally the program and recruit to Kansas. Those things are all way more important than the outcome of any one game — good or bad — and that's why Bowen remains as strong of a candidate for the job today as he was before the beating at OU. His answers to those questions, and more, during the formal interview process will determine his fate.
Three reasons to smile
1 – These are tough to come by after an outing like that, but there was a play late in the game when senior Tony Pierson caught a short pass and appeared headed toward being knocked out of bounds with relative ease for a short gain. He wasn't. Pierson fought off the tackle, slipped past a couple more and turned it up the field for a first down. It was a rare highlight for the Jayhawks on Saturday and it didn't change a thing about the outcome. But it was a subtle reminder about the character and toughness of this senior class, which now has just one game left as a part of the KU football program. Expect a ton of emotion and heart like this to be on display next week in Manhattan.
2 – Freshman running back Corey Avery had a couple of really nice runs in this one and also caught a pass for one of KU's biggest gains of the day. It didn't matter for Saturday's game, but it definitely showed how fortunate KU is to have this guy coming back next season. Avery has been every bit as good as advertised and should only get better. It's not easy for a true freshman to handle so much of the load on a bad team, but Avery has done an admirable job and learned a lot during Year 1 of what figures to become a solid career.
3 – It's hard to know exactly what was going on because the sounds were muffled and I didn't get my own eyes or ears on the situation. But while we were conducting postgame interviews on Saturday, there was some commotion coming from what appeared to be the KU locker room. Lots of yelling, passion and even a little anger were the tone of what we heard and even though there was no way of telling whether it was KU players, coaches , both or even KU people at all who were responsible for all the noise, it was very evident that the Jayhawks were pissed about their play. That should not surprise anyone, but has to be nice for KU fans to hear, given that the tone of the postgame comments was more about moving forward and forgetting about what happened. If the sounds were from Jayhawks, it's clear that they took some time to vent before moving on.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Having an NCAA record set on you is bad enough, but having it done the way it was only makes it worse. Samaje Perine is a heck of a running back and he's got a bright future in the Big 12 and beyond. But most of the holes he ran through were enormous and I think you could conservatively say that most capable running backs in the country would've gained at least 250 yards running behind that same line and through those same holes. The record will live for a while and always be a part of NCAA history. How quickly KU can move past the mental hit of getting blown off the ball all day will determine how competitive they can be next weekend in Manhattan.
2 – KU's O-line play, which had taken a couple of steps forward during the past two weeks, took a major step back on Saturday. Credit OU's D-line and active front seven for a lot of that, but it was still very obvious that the KU O-line no showed. Michael Cummings had guys in his face all day long, the KU running game only had a few moments worth talking about and these guys looked vastly overmatched all day long. Their struggles severely hampered the KU offense and took three of the Jayhawks' best playmakers — receivers Nick Harwell and Nigel King and tight end Jimmay Mundine — almost completely out of the game.
3 – Even KU's punting game was a little rough in this one. Sure Trevor Pardula booted it 11 times for a 41-yard average, but he had one snap zip right through his hands (although the turnover didn't hurt KU) and another came dribbling back to him (which he responded to by fielding it well and bombing a kick). A big theme this season has been the fact that KU just can't make as many mistakes as its opponents because the Jayhawks' margin for error is so much smaller than everyone else. By this point in the season, bad weather or not, those types of mistakes can't be happening.
One for the road
KU's long afternoon in Norman, Oklahoma:
• Moved the Jayhawks to 579-597-58 all-time.
• Increased a streak of 16-straight losses to opponents ranked in the top-25.
• Prolonged streaks of 29 consecutive losses in true road games and 32 losses in games played away from Lawrence. Kansas’ last road win came at UTEP on Sept. 12, 2009.
• Also extended KU’s Big 12 Conference road losing streak to 25-straight league road games and 28 conference matches played away from Lawrence with the last victory occurring in Ames, Iowa on Oct. 4, 2008.
The Jayhawks will close out the 2014 season and the interim head coaching era of Clint Bowen with a 3 p.m. kickoff in Manhattan against Kansas State on Saturday. The Sunflower Showdown has been lopsided — both ways at different times — for a number of years and it's hard to know what exactly we're in for this weekend.
It's no secret that Kansas University quarterback Michael Cummings has been dealing with some kind of arm issue for the past few weeks, although you'd never know it from watching the guy play.
Series after series, play after play, Cummings has picked himself up off the turf, hustled back to the huddle and called the next play. Teammates occasionally check on him and ask how he's feeling. Junior wide receiver Nigel King said every time he or anyone else had asked Cummings if he was OK, the reply came quickly and usually was short-lived. “I'm OK, I'm OK,” King recalled Cummings saying during a recent game.
Cummings is not interested in focusing on himself or his well-being. He much rather would nod to show nothing's really wrong and move on to calling the next play and leading the offense.
After all, that's what he's here to do, and, pain or no pain, the guy is not about to give in to a little soreness while the opportunity of a lifetime is within reached.
Asked earlier this week how he was feeling physically, Cummings painted a genuinely sunny picture.
“I feel great today, actually,” Cummings said Wednesday afternoon before being asked how he felt a few days earlier. “Sunday was a little tough. Tuesday was a little tough only because we didn't lift on Tuesday.”
Against Iowa State, Cummings momentarily left the game with a right shoulder issue before returning to lead the Jayhawks to victory. Against TCU, the injury — or something like it — popped up again after Cummings plowed in for a one-yard touchdown run.
Despite taking a shot on the play, Cummings said he came away with no bad feelings about another quarterback draw being called in the future.
“If they're there, I'll run 'em,” Cummings said.
KU coach Clint Bowen, who called Cummings' physical toughness “underrated,” will be the first to tell you that, at this point in the season, if you've been playing for your team at all, you're going to be a little beat up. A lot of times, what separates those who become players and those who don't is the ability to play through that pain and continue to produce at a high level.
“If you're one of those guys that can't handle that, then college football is a rough business for you,” Bowen said. “And Michael is obviously proving week after week that he's a pretty tough guy, and you know you can count on him to go out there and battle through some of the discomforts that come with football.”
Cummings has done that and takes pride in it.
“I'm not walking around sore all day,” Cummings said. “I think it is just playing through pain. My shoulder was sore, but if they call a pass play, I have to hit it. If not, I need to be off the field. So if I'm out there I'm gonna do whatever the play calls me to do.”
They may be small steps, but, at least for a few moments in the past week, Kansas University football was relevant once again.
Don't get me wrong, I fully recognize that there are plenty of die-hard KU football fans who live and die (and most often agonize) with the ups and downs of the program and show up ready to support their team win, lose or draw.
To that group, the Jayhawks are always relevant. But I'm talking relevant to college football. I'm talking relevant in the sense that something crosses one's brain that makes college football fans everywhere go, 'Huh, Kansas. Look at that.'
Last week, the Jayhawks had at least two of those moments. The first and most obvious came on Saturday, when KU put a heck of a scare into No. 5 TCU and threatened to single-handedly shake up the entire college football playoff standings, at least for a week. Truth be told, the Jayhawks did that even in a 34-30 loss to TCU, which entered last week ranked fourth in the ever-important college football playoff standings and, by some time tonight, will know whether that close call with Kansas hurt them or not.
The Jayhawks had plays that popped up on SportsCenter and other highlight shows. The names you know well were kicked around nationally for a couple of minutes and, although it went down as just another L, the effort regained Kansas some national respect.
I figured that respect would come and go pretty quickly but then I read this rundown of the playoff standings from the folks at FOX Sports, who not only gave TCU some credit for holding off Kansas (inspired team, on the road, Big 12 foe, all that jazz) but actually sounded off about the coaching search currently under way here. It caught me off guard and when I read it I had to read it a second time to make sure what I saw was right. But it was. There in the third comment under No. 5 Baylor was mention from former college football great Charles Davis — one of a 13-man FOX panel designed to track the playoff progress — gave a shout-out to interim head coach Clint Bowen for a job well done.
Davis: “(Baylor) will benefit from TCU’s struggle at Kansas (give Clint Bowen the job, Kansas; he deserves it), and the 'TCU’s ahead of Baylor in the poll, but Baylor beat TCU head-to-head!' discussion gets quelled, at least for this week. Baylor’s schedule is catching up as they finish with all Big 12 games, including hosting Oklahoma State Saturday night on FOX.”
It might be a small mention and it certainly is not KU impacting the national scene the way the next head coach (whoever that will be) and athletic director Sheahon Zenger want, but it's infinitely better than the blowouts of the Turner Gill and Charlie Weis days and something that, short as it may have been, KU fans can hold onto and take pride in.
The Kansas University football team did not win Saturday's thrilling showdown with No. 5 TCU at Memorial Stadium, but you'd never know that from the reaction that came after it.
Smiles radiated, pride beamed and the Jayhawks walked, talked, looked and sounded like a real football team again. There was even an opportunity for interim head coach to blast the officials for a couple of interesting calls, but, true to the form he's had throughout this whole ordeal, Bowen paused, thought carefully and chose to take the high road.
It was a good move. Even if he didn't agree with the calls that went against his team, whining about them in the postgame press conference would have done nothing — not for the game, not for his candidacy for the full-time job and not for the attitude he's instilled in his team since taking over. That attitude, of course, focuses on one mindset and one mindset only: Work hard, be tough and worry only about the things you can control.
That recipe almost enabled the Jayhawks to pull an all-time upset against a TCU team vying to stay in the conversation for the first ever college football playoff. The Horned Frogs won, and that's all that mattered, particularly on a day when other top-tier teams struggled or lost. But it could be argued that it was the Jayhawks who came away from this one having gained the most.
Never has the support behind Bowen been greater. Interest in the program is headed in the right direction again. Fans of KU football are no longer embarrassed to call themselves that out loud.
Bowen had a lot to do with that, but to give him all of the credit for it would be wrong. He's the captain of the ship, but the guys with the oars are some pretty big time players with a lot of heart and pride. And most of them are pretty good at football, too.
TCU found that out first-hand on Saturday and left Lawrence feeling fortunate to have survived.
If it's football you want to talk about, Saturday's effort against a darn good TCU team proved that the Jayhawks might have a chance to be competitive in their two remaining games. That's something almost no one thought they could say a couple of weeks ago. But this team is tough, the offense is clicking and the defense is confident it can play with anybody. That alone should make for a fun couple of weeks. If it's the coaching search you're more interested in following, Saturday's game was relevant there, too. Bowen has proven he can coach. He took a group of guys who have done nothing but lose and made them winners. Maybe not on the scoreboard all that often, but they'll leave here with their heads up and remember this season much differently than it looked like they were going to. People realize that. People like that. And it's made a huge difference in the way a lot of people view Bowen as a candidate for the job.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – If the way Jimmay Mundine competed out there did not earn your respect, the guy must have done something to your family. Seven catches, 137 yards, a touchdown and a part of what seemed like 40 missed tackles. All while having a heck of a time. Mundine was sensational in this game and has been a huge part of the reason for the solid play turned in by QB Michael Cummings. His effort against a Top 5 team on top of all he already has done this season should put him in the lead for first-team all-Big 12 honors at tight end.
2 – Forget about Michael Cummings' statistics, let's talk about the young man's toughness. I counted three times where he walked off the field looking like he might not be able to continue, yet, each time he trotted back out there and not only played but also threw darts. I could go on and on and on and on here, but you get the point. The kid's tough. He's a heck of a competitor. And he deserves a ton of respect even if he's not impressed.
3 – That's two weeks in a row that the Jayhawks have started fast and you can see what that's doing for their chances to be competitive. After brutal starts against Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks have finally stopped digging themselves huge holes that they can't crawl out of no matter how well they play. The improvement of the offense — credit Bowen, Cummings and Eric Kiesau for a big chunk of that — has played the biggest role here, but so has the general mindset of this team. For the first time in a long time, these guys truly believe they're good enough to win and are getting results and production that back that up.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – KU's special teams cost them again. Against Oklahoma State, a Tyreek Hill kickoff return for a touchdown — and the decision to kick it to him — cost the Jayhawks a victory and on Saturday against TCU, punter Trevor Pardula's big leg got the Jayhawks into trouble for a change when Cameron Echols-Luper returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown that proved to be the difference. Those things will kill a lot of teams, but they're especially deadly for a team like KU that just doesn't have much margin for error.
2 – With all the talent returning in the backfield heading into this season, you would've never been able to convince me that the KU passing game would be more productive for this team. But it has been lately. KU averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against a tough TCU defense. Corey Avery (10 carries, 27 yards and a touchdown) had good moments and it would've been very interesting to see him get three more carries when the Jayhawks took over at the TCU 10 yard line late in the game down by seven. But hindsight's 20/20 and there's no guarantee Avery or anyone else would've got in either. The way Cummings and the pass catchers are playing — along with the improvement of the O-Line — the running game doesn't have to be great. But it does need to be a threat to keep the defense on its heels and 2.1 ypc won't cut it.
3 – It really is a shame that Saturday's loss was the home finale. With the new wave of support building behind Bowen and his boys it would be cool to see what the crowd would look like if the Jayhawks had one more home game this season.
One for the road:
KU's four-point loss to fifth-ranked TCU on Saturday...
• Moved the Jayhawks to 579-596-58 all-time. • Pushed TCU's lead in the all-time series lead 19-8-4. • Increased a streak of 15-straight losses to opponents ranked in the Top 25. • Prolonged a span of more than three years since the Jayhawks have won games in consecutive weeks. • Pushed the stretch of years it's been since KU topped TCU to 18. • Increased KU’s deficit to TCU in games played in Lawrence to 9-6. • Gave KU an even 3-3 mark at home in 2014.
KU will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, this weekend for a match-up with the Sooners at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Wednesday's KU football practice was one that closely resembled what the game time temperatures are expected to be this weekend when the Jayhawks and TCU Horned Frogs kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Biting winds that dropped the temperature to around 12 degrees made Wednesday a little different than most of the other practices the Jayhawks have had this season, and, although most adjusted accordingly there, there were a few warriors among the bunch out there today.
While most players bundled up with long sleeves and tights to stay warm, a few guys went with short sleeves and shorts just like it was a normal September practice.
The ones I saw who bared all were: Kyle Pullia, Mike Smithburg, Jordan Shelley-Smith and Preston Randall. Go figure, three of the four were offensive linemen. Props to those guys. I stood out there for about 40 minutes and even bundled up in a coat and gloves, it was cold. (I was an idiot and forgot a hat or hood of any kind, so I was toughing it out a little bit).
Anyway, all of this might seem irrelevant, but it really might not be. The high temperature in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday was 45 degrees. While not exactly warm, that was about 30 degrees warmer than what the guys in Lawrence were dealing with. And with afternoon temperatures the next two days hovering around the same mark, it's definitely possible that the game day temperatures expected to be in the high teens — with a 90 percent chance for snow, by the way — could have a much bigger impact on TCU's roster, which includes 79 native Texans, than KU's, which has been practicing in weather like that all week.
We'll see. A heavy dose of snow would make it interesting for both offenses, but, if you're KU, you'll take that trade off because it could even the playing field a little bit.
Here's a quick look at what else caught my eye at Wednesday's practice:
• Joe Dineen may very well have a new position yet again. The freshman from Free State High was working with the linebackers on Wednesday, this after he moved from safety to running back during preseason camp after the Jayhawks lost Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox to season-ending injuries. It's hard to know what this means for Dineen's future, without talking to him or KU coach Clint Bowen, but there was some talk before he even signed with KU about the potential for the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Dineen to move to linebacker in the future. Good to see him getting a look there late in the season. Either way, I think his future's on defense.
• Keon Stowers, Andrew Bolton and De'Andre Mann all were practicing and appeared to be going full speed through the drills I saw. That bodes well for KU's lineup this weekend. Still waiting for more information on offensive lineman Ngalu Fusimalohi. We might not fully know his status until game time.
• Maybe it was just their way of combatting the cold, but the coaches, including Bowen, had an extra dose of intensity on Wednesday. Probably not worth reading too much into, but that's one thing that always has impressed me about this coaching staff — no matter who the opponent is or what their odds are for the upcoming game (and remember they are playing the No. 5 team in the country this weekend), the coaches prepare like they'll be right there and like they have a great shot. That kind of mentality rubs off on the players and can become the foundation of a program.
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.
As has been the case throughout the past few weeks, interim KU coach Clint Bowen kicked off Wednesday's practice with a visit from a former Jayhawk. And this one meant a little more to Bowen than some of the others.
Charley Bowen, the older brother of the interim KU coach, was given the opportunity to talk to the team before Wednesday's practice and it was very clear by observing the head coach's actions that he was fired up for his big brother to speak to his squad.
During his introduction, Bowen highlighted a few of his brother's accolades — 44 starts, all-Big Eight honors, etc. — and then gave an inspired welcome as Charley stepped into the huddle to address the team.
After sharing a few words, most of which had to do with life after football and maximizing the opportunity these players had today, Charley was greeted by a rousing ovation, a few hugs and an energetic start to practice.
Charley told me it was the first time since 1992 that he had been on the practice field at Memorial Stadium. The only other KU practice he's been able to attend since then was in Arizona during the days leading up to the Insight Bowl in 2008.
Asked if being back on the field made him miss his playing days, Charley smiled and said simply, “You always miss it.”
Here's a quick look at a few other things that caught my eye at Wednesday's practice as the Jayhawks continued preparations for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. showdown with Iowa State:
• Senior defensive tackle Keon Stowers did not practice, but was on the field and did all he could to be a part of the action. Unlike his teammates in pads, Stowers wore only shorts and a jersey, but that did not stop him from coaching up the guys who were out there getting the reps in his place. Whether it was during individual drills or during team action, Stowers always found time to offer a helping hand and seemed fully engaged in every aspect, just as if he would've been out there. Bowen said earlier this week that the team was hopeful that Stowers would play Saturday and it sounds as if that's still the case. The good news there? Stowers is such a veteran with so many games under his belt that he could probably miss most of practice and still get out there on Saturday provided he's physically ready.
• It's hard to say what to make of it, but senior tight end Trent Smiley ran some with the first team offense during Wednesday's practice. Known among KU's tight ends as a strong blocker, Smiley lined up in the backfield, at his regular tight end spot and on both sides of the formation during the portion of practice when he ran with the ones.
• As was reflected on this week's updated depth chart, sophomore linebacker Courtney Arnick ran with the first team defense in place of Jake Love, who has been dealing with an injury. Love practiced and should get plenty of reps and play plenty of snaps on Saturday, but Arnick is quietly putting together a pretty strong season. Arnick all of a sudden has the look of a player the Jayhawks will be fortunate to have back in the lineup in 2015. Should be interesting to see how strongly he finishes the final third of this year's schedule.
• Defensive backs coach Dave Campo was very vocal during Wednesday's practice and most of what Campo barked about had to do with the vision of his DBs. “Get your eyes right,” Campo continually yelled during one drill. During another, he simply yelled at one of his DBs, “Get your eyes off of him (the quarterback) and worry about your man.” Nothing Earth-shattering here, of course, but it's cool to see these types of little details emphasized on this level.
• Finally, in case you missed NY Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., doing his one-handed pregame routine during the Monday Night Football game last week, check out the video below. It's become sort of a viral video and on Wednesday a couple of Jayhawks were attempting to match the moves. One who came the closest, believe it or not, was Buck Michael Reynolds. Could an INT be in Reynolds' future this week???
Kansas University football officials on Sunday night released an update on the status of freshman defensive back Derrick Neal and senior defensive lineman Keon Stowers, both of whom were injured and carted off the field during Saturday's 60-14 loss at Baylor.
Both players were taken to a nearby hospital for further evaluation during Saturday's loss but nothing new was known about their status following the game.
Sunday night, the update indicated that both players had returned to Lawrence and both participated in team activities on Sunday.
Stowers, a starter on KU's D-Line, posted on his Facebook page late Saturday that he was OK and looking forward to his recovery.
Neal, a reserve defensive back who suffered what appeared to be a head injury while making a tackle on a kickoff return, was able to get to the cart under his own power before leaving the field.
KU coach Clint Bowen will be available on the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday morning and also at his regular Tuesday news conference and at those times may provide an update on Neal and Stowers' availability for this weekend's 2:30 p.m. home game against Iowa State.