LAWRENCE — There was an interception by a nose tackle, and yellow flags on the field, and a mammoth, 300-pound man was rumbling toward the open space of the end zone.
Keon Stowers had never scored a college touchdown before, so of course he wanted this. It was midway through the second quarter on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, and Kansas was still tied with South Dakota.
And as Stowers completed a 42-yard touchdown return, his KU teammates went bonkers, prompting another penalty flag from an official.
“I taught him those moves,” KU coach Charlie Weis joked.
On the field, Stowers looked bewildered. He had made the play of his life. Then a teammate had committed an illegal block in the back. And here was KU, celebrating too hard, picking up an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for a touchdown that didn’t count.
“It was insane,” KU quarterback Jake Heaps said.
“It was heartbreaking,” Stowers said. “But it was still exciting at the same time.”
By the end of Saturday, after Kansas had finished off a season-opening 31-14 victory, the moment served as a pretty solid microcosm for a program attempting to dig itself out of the mire of a 1-11 season.
The Jayhawks won for the first time in 12 months, snapping an 11-game skid that dated to last year’s opener. But the Jayhawks also sputtered in stretches against a Championship Subdivision program (South Dakota) that finished 1-10 in the Missouri Valley last season.
In other words, KU’s nose tackle went gazelle, making a play that would surely rack up a few thousand views on YouTube. But then KU celebrated a touchdown that didn’t count.
“We definitely left some points out there,” Stowers said. “… And I feel like this game was a really good teaching game. We can take so much stuff from this game.”
Here is one thing for sure: The KU running game is still pretty stout. During halftime on Saturday, with the Jayhawks leading just 14-7, Weis stood in front of his players and delivered a brief message.
“We’re gonna go ram it down their throat,” Weis said. “We’re gonna get the ball and we’re gonna ram it down their throat.”
And they did.
The Jayhawks finished with 280 yards rushing in 50 carries while senior James Sims finished with a team-high 94 yards and two touchdowns in 16 rushes. Sophomore Darrian Miller, who returned to the program after missing last season, added 72 yards while in 14 carries.
“You’re sending a message to your team,” Weis said. “Lookit fellas: Let’s get going. And they answered the call.”
In other measurable ways, the night had a little more promise. Quarterback Jake Heaps completed 10 of 20 passing attempts for 110 yards and one touchdown in his first college start since arriving as a highly touted transfer last season. Heaps, once pronounced the savior as a freshman at BYU, re-started his career in a slightly less-pressurized environment of 41,920 fans. And if not for a handful of early drops — drops that handcuffed the KU offense — his numbers would have looked moderately better.
“I know Jake, he’ll be madly disappointed in himself,” Weis said. “But I’m not. I think that’s a nice sound start and something we can grow on.”
Heaps’ best moment came late in the second quarter, when he connected with junior receiver Justin McCay for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:28 left, giving KU a 14-7 lead. For Heaps and KU, it was more than just a little breathing room.
It was Heaps’ first touchdown pass since Nov. 19, 2011 — his final days at BYU. And for Kansas, it was also the first touchdown catch by a KU receiver since Oct. 22, 2011 — a span of 17 games.
In other ways, it was more tepid. The Jayhawks finished with nine penalties for 71 yards. And a revamped defense, stocked with eight new starters, surrendered a nine-play, 55-yard scoring drive to the Coyotes late in the first quarter.
“You can go in and practice, and you can have an expectation for your team,” Heaps said. “But until you step out there on the field and you really see what you have, you get a good idea what we can work with.”
In late July, you might remember that Weis referred to his 2012 squad as a “pile of crap.” The idea, of course, was that Weis had hit the junior-college recruiting trail, hoping to spruce up some of that toxic waste.
After one night, you could certainly see some improvement. But you did have to squint pretty hard.
“We do have a lot more ceiling,” Weis said. “There’s zero doubt in my mind that we’re not close to where we can be. But we have a lot more ceiling. There’s some guys that aren’t even playing yet that are going to end up being major factors here.”