LAWRENCE — It was late on Saturday afternoon, and Charlie Weis was grinning his toothy grin and facing a room full of reporters and microphones. Nearly 30 minutes earlier, Weis had watched his Kansas Jayhawks lose, 20-6, to No. 16 TCU at Memorial Stadium, a defeat that dropped his team to 1-2.
Weis has a habit of forcing smiles after losses — or at least, he has so far in his short time at KU. Sometimes, like after last week’s one-point loss to Rice, it feels more like gallows humor — the situation so dire you have no choice but to swallow it with a smile.
But on Saturday, as he took stock of his program after three games, Weis tried to stir a little optimism into his postgame, state-of-the-team speech.
If the Rice game was followed by a moment of shock, Weis says, the loss to TCU felt completely different — an emotion crystallized during an on-field huddle in the game’s final seconds.
“It was a teaching moment,” Weis said, “about turning the corner.”
“Hey, everyone came in here today thinking you were gonna get the crap kicked out of ya,” Weis said he told his players. “That didn’t turn out that way, did it?”
This is the optimistic view, of course. The other side: The Jayhawks were a few fortunate TCU turnovers away from losing by three or four touchdowns.
But on Saturday, Weis attempted to steer the conversation back to the hopeful side of Saturday’s loss. As the Jayhawks move on to the rest of their schedule — a nonconference game at Northern Illinois next week followed by the rest of the Big 12 round-robin — maybe the KU players will remember how it felt to hang tough against a top-20 team for the better part of three quarters.
“We see what everyone says,” senior defensive end Toben Opurum said. “We see that people don’t respect us; people picking us to lose 44-21 and everything. But you gotta realize, that we put in way too much work to be losing close games like this.”
The Jayhawks were a three-touchdown underdog against a motivated TCU program playing its first Big 12 game. So that provides some context for the good things KU achieved.
The defense forced four fumbles — that now makes 12 turnovers for KU in three games — and three came inside the TCU 10-yard line. Safety Bradley McDougald came around the edge and stripped the ball from TCU quarterback Casey Pachall midway through the first quarter. And Opurum kept a touchdown off the board early in the fourth, chasing down Pachall and forcing a fumble at the goal line.
But despite the early turnovers, the Jayhawks still trailed 7-3 after one quarter and 10-6 at halftime.
If there was a decisive momentum swing, it came early in the third quarter, when the Jayhawks opened the second half with the ball and had two chances to take the lead. KU, however, managed one first down during their first two drives.
Moments later, after a Kansas punt, the Jayhawks’ defense had forced another quick third down. Opurum came off the edge on the next play, but Pachall evaded the rush and found receiver Brandon Carter on a short pass that pin-balled into a 33-yard gain. Six plays later, Pachall found Carter on a 25-yard touchdown catch. The Horned Frogs led 17-6. And KU had no answer.
Senior quarterback Dayne Crist, who was 9 for 12 passing in the first half, finished 19 for 39 for 303 yards. And even when Crist coughed up a fumble inside the TCU 5 with more than a minute left, a miracle comeback appeared unlikely.
Crist wasn’t helped by a couple of big drops. And many of the incompletions came late, when Weis ditched the running game in an attempt to dig out of the double-digit hole.
Weis was quick to deflect the instant criticism away from Crist. But, Weis said, to beat a team such as TCU, a team with a young defense, the Jayhawks needed to make some more big plays in the passing game.
“We won a lot of battles within the game,” Crist said, “but didn’t win enough to win the game.”
The Jayhawks, who were playing without injured receiver Kale Pick, finished 2 of 13 on third-down conversions.
“Once again, situational football has been not good,” Weis said. “We haven’t been good on third down, and we haven’t been good on scoring touchdowns in the red zone. And really, that’s where it really comes down to.”
The Jayhawks proved they were good enough not to get rolled by a top-20 team. But that message also has an expiration date.
“It’s not OK,” Opurum said. “This isn’t the Kansas of last year or the year before. We gotta be able to finish games like this. I give credit to TCU for finishing the game, but we can only finish close too many times. We gotta turn the corner at some point.”