MANHATTAN — All year long, going back to last summer, and the spring before that, every Kansas football player wanted to talk about it being different. They wanted to bury the ugly past, run onto a field with pride, and move on with their all-too-short college careers.
By late Saturday, after the latest kick to the gut, a 56-16 loss at rival Kansas State inside Snyder Family Stadium, the program that wanted to move on was left shaken and stalled again. And KU’s players, some on their third coach in four years, were left to deal with harshest truth of all: Maybe this team isn’t all that different than the one that finished 2-10 last season, the one coached by Turner Gill and dominated by foes week after week.
“A lot of stuff,” said senior defensive end Toben Opurum. “I feel like we handed to them.”
You could see it in five total turnovers, four from starting quarterback Dayne Crist. Four, including three by Crist, came during a disastrous third quarter that turned a 21-14 game into a Sunflower evisceration for the third straight year.
You could see it in the defense — 346 rushing yards for Kansas State, a number that seems like it was dug up from the Gill era.
And you could see it in KU coach Charlie Weis trying to explain how KU would go forward.
“One thing I can’t do, is I can’t just stay status quo,” Weis said. “I can’t just say: ‘Well, that’s OK, we got our butts whupped by K-State. That’s OK, fellas.’ ”
Weis didn’t promise any changes after the debacle. Even after replacing Crist with backup quarterback Michael Cummings late in the second half, Weis acknowledged that was simply a way give Cummings, a redshirt freshman, some experience.
“But I think I have to be objective and look at every position,” Weis said, “and quarterback’s got to be included along with everything else.”
It’s hard to find immediate answers. The defensive line was shaky again on Sunday, but KU began the year by playing a two-deep rotation, and few players have established themselves. The secondary has also been suspect, but KU has almost zero experienced players behind starters Tyler Patmon and Greg Brown.
But more than any single player, Saturday’s result was more of an indictment of the team as a whole — a reality that’s even more apparent when lined up against a rival ranked in the top 10. The 1-4 Jayhawks are winless in their last 14 Big 12 games, still searching for a little hope.
In the opening half on Saturday, Weis smothered any instinct to play it safe and coached like a man with nothing to lose. At one point, Weis called a fake punt and fake field goal on the same drive, with both plays succeeding in dramatic fashion.
“When you know you’re playing against a team of this caliber,” Weis said, “you gotta be willing to take some risk.”
If nothing else, it was a few moments of fun. The Jayhawks lived on a bevy of swing passes to speedy running back Tony Pierson — one went 19 yards for KU’s first touchdown. And when James Sims finished off the fake-filled drive with a 1-yard touchdown, the Jayhawks had regained a 14-7 lead with 13:23 left in the second quarter.
It would all fall apart.
Pierson left because of an injury midway through the first half; Crist completed 16 of 27 passes for 189 yards and three interceptions while being sacked four times. And the decisive third quarter included a four-play stretch that included a Crist interception, a KU safety, a fumble from freshman Tre’ Parmalee on the ensuing kick, and a 32-yard touchdown run from K-State’s John Hubert.
“It kind of exploded,” said Cummings, who watched the series from the sideline.
“It was like big play after big play,” Weis said. “And that really didn’t turn out the way you planned it.”
Weis said it felt like the third quarter took forever. But what else could Kansas do? For the third straight year, they’d been embarrassed. After the game, as Weis sat in a makeshift interview room because of renovations at the stadium, he was asked if games like this could have recruiting implications down the road.
Weis spoke quickly, a mix of honestly and sarcasm, and the answer summed up the whole moment pretty well.
“If I were a recruit, I’d wanna come play for us,” Weis said, “(You) can get on the field pretty quick, don’t you think?”