LAWRENCE — They had watched the kick sail through the uprights, the other team celebrating on their turf. They had made the long walk to the northeast side of Memorial Stadium and sung the alma mater in a state of shock, the student section mostly empty. And they had made the excruciating journey back to the locker room, heads held low and faces full of disappointment.
Finally, at some point on Saturday night, in the minutes after Kansas lost to Rice 25-24 on a last-second field goal, the Jayhawks faced their first-year coach and listened to him speak.
“It was kind of challenging them,” Charlie Weis said afterward. “What’s it gonna be, fellas? Is this the way it’s gonna be?”
Later on Saturday night, as fans descended on the neighboring streets, that was the most pressing question facing the program. The Jayhawks had just let an 11-point lead disintegrate in the second half against a team from Conference USA — a team that lost to UCLA by 25 points in its opener. And in the final moments, Rice kicker Chris Boswell drilled a 45-yard field goal that made the difference.
It’s not so much that the result was surprising. KU finished 5-19 over the last two years, suffering massive blowouts to big schools and a shocking upset to a Division I-AA team. But for the better part of the offseason, Weis had talked about changing the culture.
After a solid but unsatisfying victory over South Dakota State last week, this latest setback felt a whole lot more like an extension of 2011. The program sea change is now on hold, and Weis is asking the question that every one wants answered.
“What’s it gonna be, fellas?”
Weis acknowledged that he’s as culpable as anyone else. (“When we lose a game,” he said, “the first person I’m blaming is me.”) But if the Jayhawks are looking for a moment it all slipped away, they can point to a rugged stretch late in the fourth quarter.
Leading 24-16, the Jayhawks missed an opportunity to make it a two-score game when junior kicker Ron Doherty banged a 40-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright. It was Doherty’s second miss.
“It’s easy to look up there and say, ‘Well, Doherty missed a couple kicks. That lost the game,’ ” Weis said. “Did it contribute to us losing the game? Yes. It contributed. That’s not a big secret. But we had a chance to win the game on offense.”
After the Doherty miss, Rice pulled to within 24-22 before failing on the two-point conversion with less than five minutes left. The KU offense took the field with a chance to burn some clock. But the drive quickly stalled, and on third-and-8 from the KU 27, Crist took a chance on a questionable throw downfield. It was intended for Chris Omigie, but it ended up in the hands of Rice cornerback Bryce Callahan at the Rice 47.
Crist said his initial read was covered. He was trying to make a play to seal the game. Weis said he wasn’t bothered by the throw. Interceptions are never OK, he said. But the decision-making was sound.
“As long as you have a one-on-one matchup,” he said, “and don’t throw the ball right to the defensive guy, it’s always OK.”
The interception set up Rice’s final drive. And the KU defense did have one big chance to close the door. On fourth-and-4 from the KU 47, Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue hit tight end Vance McDonald on a short route. Both Greg Brown and Dexter Linton had a chance to make the stop. But McDonald bounced away.
“We rallied to the ball,” Brown said, “but we didn’t get him down in time.”
In the first half, the Jayhawks had made mistakes, too. But they had mostly atoned for them. Crist threw an interception under heavy pressure on his first pass from scrimmage, a gadget play that saw him lined up at receiver. And kick returner D.J. Beshears coughed up the ensuing kickoff after Rice took a 3-0 lead. Still, KU took a 17-13 lead into halftime before extending it to 24-13 on the first drive of the second half.
Crist finished 16 of 28 for 144 yards and two interceptions. And even a potent rushing attack — Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox combined for 209 yards — couldn’t prevent disappointment.
Now the schedule gets tougher. TCU comes to Lawrence next week. The Big 12 gauntlet awaits. And the question still looms.
What’s it gonna be for Kansas?
“It’s always easy when things are going well,” Weis said. “But when things don’t go well, I think you have to accept accountability. And once you do that, you can turn the corner.”