No, really. They’re getting better. And though many � even most � Kansas fans may not want to think about it as their team closes out what appears likely to be a 3-9 season, at this point is bears mentioning.
The spread in Las Vegas for Saturday’s match-up between the Jayhawks and the Cornhuskers of Nebraska was somewhere north of astronomical. 35 points. Five touchdowns. And the truth was, most casual observers probably expected Nebraska to cover without much trouble.
And let’s face it, that wasn’t an unreasonable belief. The Jayhawks have made headlines � and not the good kind � with startling frequency this year; first by dropping the season opener to a 1-AA opponent, and then by losing their first three conference games by a minimum of 35 points.
But at the end of that unfortunate streak of blowout losses, Head coach Turner Gill said during his midweek press conference that he saw improvement.
“I saw great effort by a lot of our players,” the Kansas head coach explained, Oct. 26. “I saw great energy by our players. We did have some better execution, but as we all know we have to do a better job of taking care of the football.”
But he was right. Until starter Jordan Webb went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter, the Jayhawks were moving the ball on Texas A&M, down 17-10 at one point. Webb was throwing the ball downfield decisively, and the offense was playing with flow and purpose.
But then Webb went down, and so did his backup, Kale Pick, and the wheels fell off the bus. Final score: 45-10, Aggies.
Next week in Ames, Iowa, the Jayhawks took another step forward. Despite a severely limited offensive gameplan due to the presence of first-time starter Quinn Mecham � a junior college transfer � the defense rallied in the first half versus the Iowa State Cyclones, keeping their offense out of the endzone.
The Jayhawks took a lead in to halftime, 9-7, and though it would evaporate in a 21-point scoring outburst in the third quarter, the team played undeniably better football. They took a step forward.
Then last week happened. Down 28 points to begin the fourth quarter, Kansas launched the single biggest comeback in school history, defeating the Colorado Buffaloes 52-45.
“This is a great win for our program, and a great win for our players,” Gill said, following the game. “I’m just so proud of them � they came to play. This is a great group of guys to be around and we’re going to continue on in this direction next week.”
The prevailing opinion among Jayhawks fans is that former head coach Mark Mangino finally managed to put his stamp on the program in 2004. After a highly questionable pass interference call on Kansas receiver Charles Gordon � following a reception that would have sealed a victory over the Texas Longhorns � allowed Vince Young another chance to work his magic, Mangino exploded in the post-game press conference.
He blamed the officials and the conference for perpetuating an environment in which it is frowned upon for a program like Kansas to upset mighty Texas and dash their BCS hopes. And in that one moment, at least for a little while, the program became his.
On the heels of such a monumental come-from-behind victory, fans wondered if the fourth quarter of the Colorado game could be Gill’s own version of “You know what this is about, don’t you? Dollar signs.”
It’s way too early to talk about that possibility yet, but despite losing to Nebraska Saturday night, this team took another step forward. Not only did they not get blown out, the defense turned in what was unquestionably its best effort of the year in a 20-3 loss.
This is a Nebraska offense that has been nothing if not potent all season long. 31 points versus Missouri. 51 points versus Oklahoma State. 48 points versus Kansas State. A season-high 56 points versus Washington. Led by arguably the most explosive player in the conference, quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Huskers know how to score � and the Jayhawks held them to 20 points and fewer than 400 total yards.
Sure, a loss is never a good thing. The Kansas offense was held to just 87 total yards. Not in a quarter, not in a half. 87 yards for the game. That’s…not good.
But in a season without much for Jayhawk Nation to hang its hat on, this team is showing improvement. At this point, that’s all for which even the most dedicated fan can ask.