LAWRENCE, Kan. — Last weekend’s loss to Ohio was eerily familiar to Kansas fans beaten down by years of ineptitude, but it also overshadowed something not so familiar: signs of progress.
Yes, even in a 37-21 defeat.
The Jayhawks did just about everything wrong in falling into a 25-0 first-half hole, muffing a pair of punts, getting stopped for a safety and struggling to pick up first downs. It was precisely the kind of start that would have doomed them to a lopsided defeat under Turner Gill or Charlie Weis.
“In the past we would have seen everybody get in their shells,” junior quarterback Montell Cozart said afterward, “and the score could have been worse than it was.”
This time, the Jayhawks channeled exuberant coach David Beaty and showed a little fight .
LaQuvionte Gonzalez returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to give them some energy, but it was the way they came out of halftime that nearly turned the game. Cozart hit Steven Sims Jr. with a 74-yard touchdown pass, then found him again on a 22-yard strike to get within 31-21 in the third quarter.
Kansas had chances to get even closer, only for the offense to again misfire. But it was still a close game midway through the fourth quarter, subtle proof of a changing attitude.
“We are still in that process of building this program. We’re still there,” Beaty said. “One win does not make you something special . You’ve got to go back to what got you there.”
Players can get bigger and stronger in the weight room. Coaches can make them better on the practice field. And the reality is only some savvy recruiting will bridge a talent chasm that separates Kansas from college football’s elite.
But there is evidence of progress in all those areas as Kansas (1-1) prepares for a game at Memphis (1-0) on Saturday.
Sims already has four touchdown receptions, despite being a sophomore. Gonzalez is playing his first season for Kansas after transferring from Texas A&M. Five freshmen are on the two-deep roster along the offensive line, including starters Hakeem Adeniji and Mesa Ribordy.
The defense also has made strides, particularly in the weight room, where a group comprised mostly of veterans has quickly learned that life in the offseason was a little easier under Gill and Weis.
“Our guys probably lift more (in-season) than most teams because we know we have to get stronger and have to get faster,” Beaty said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys playing. I get that. But the only way you get stronger is to continue to lift.”
As for the changing attitude, that process began the moment Beaty walked through the door . The Jayhawks no longer have a defeatist mindset, replaced instead by a sense of confidence. Even when they were in a hole on Saturday, they felt like they had a chance.
“If we start a little faster,” Sims said, “we know we can compete with anybody.”
Make no mistake: The box score was still ugly.
Ohio ran for 329 yards and piled up 496 yards of total offense, more than double what the Jayhawks mustered. The Bobcats controlled the ball for 46 minutes, 4 seconds, three times more than Kansas. The had 27 first downs to nine for the Jayhawks, and Kansas failed to convert all eight of its third downs and both of its fourth-down tries.
And you can’t dismiss the muffed punts, the poor snaps, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the myriad other miscues that ultimately led to another defeat.
Still, the rebuilding Jayhawks were in the game at the end.
“I still love that team. I love our guys. They’re resilient,” Beaty said. “There was a lot of disappointment in that locker room, but you can tell they’re ready to go back to work, which is what I love about this team. I like our guys, and we’ll be OK moving forward.”