LAWRENCE — There were hints of optimism all over Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. This was the beginning of a new era — KU football, according to the Book of Charlie Weis — and maybe we should start with the good stuff.
On a picturesque evening for football, the Kansas Jayhawks took down South Dakota State 31-17 in their season opener. The stands were nearly packed, 46,601 fans coming to town to see Weis’ band of newcomers and transfers. And this was the Jayhawks’ first victory since last September. After 10 straight losses, it certainly felt good to win again.
“It’s been a while,” Weis said. “It’s been a while.”
But if you were looking for a Crimson-and-Blue catharsis, a night to bury the Turner Gill era and look to the future — well, you really didn’t get that, either. This was KU football in it truest sense: A fragile work in progress — even if some of that progress does look promising.
Let’s go down the list:
New quarterback Dayne Crist gave flashes of what once made him one of the most coveted high school quarterbacks in the country. On the first play from scrimmage, Crist ran a play fake and hit receiver Kale Pick for a 43-yard strike over the middle. (After the game, Weis would come clean: “I was throwing it deep on first play for months,” he said.)
But by the end, Crist was just 17 of 36 for 169 yards — and a late interception helped keep South Dakota State in the game. Weis said Crist, starting for the first time since last September at Notre Dame, was just too anxious.
“Waiting a full calendar year to get back was something that’s been exciting,” Crist said. “But at the end of the day, (I) tried to do too much.”
Meanwhile, the Jayhawks’ much-maligned defense began the night in nightmarish fashion, surrendering a 99-yard touchdown run to running back Zach Zenner that gave the Jackrabbits an early 7-0 lead. But KU also limited South Dakota State to just one first down in the first quarter and held tight for most of the second and third quarters. No, this was not Nick Saban’s Alabama team. But there were moments — a few, anyway.
This was the story all night. And by halftime, with confidence waning, Weis had to send a simple message to his players.
“I hate to give you the bad news, fellas,” Weis told them, “but you’re actually leading in this game.”
A few weeks ago, Weis talked about beginning the year with a “convincing performance” — a victory that would set the tone for a new KU program. Well, this wasn’t that. But there some plenty of positives that Weis can dig through.
In his first game as the starting running back, sophomore Tony Pierson was a difference-maker. His 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter helped tie the score at 7-7, and his 47-yard TD early in the third quarter put KU up 17-7. (Senior tight end Mike Ragone would haul in a short touchdown catch a few minutes later that made it 24-7.)
Pierson finished with 124 yards in 20 carries, and juco transfer Taylor Cox added 121 yards in 16 carries. It was the first time KU had two 100-yard rushers since Jake Sharp and Brandon McAnderson accomplished the feat in the 2007 season opener against Central Michigan.
“Coming into the game,” Cox said. “I just knew I wanted to run hard.”
South Dakota State had started the game with freshman backup quarterback Eric Kline under center, and this was a lower-division opponent coming off a mediocre season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. And yet, in the fourth quarter, with Jackrabbits starter Austin Sumner back in the game, South Dakota State had pulled to within 24-17.
Still, Cox secured the win with a 3-yard touchdown run with 5:36 left, and Weis could walk to the locker room a winner. Hours earlier, he’d stood in the middle of the field as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blared from the loudspeakers during warmups. Weis is a Springsteen fan from New Jersey, and this was the new look of Kansas football.
“It was far from a thing of beauty now,” Weis said, “but I think it’s a good start.”