HOUSTON — Fifty-one years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy stood here in Rice Stadium and told a crowd of Texans that the United States should go to the moon.
It was a rather audacious proclamation, of course, but perhaps no more bold than what Charlie Weis was attempting to do Saturday night. The Kansas football program hadn’t won a road game in more than four years — that’s closing in on 1,500 days if you’re counting at home — and the streak was set to reach an even 20 games with another loss at Rice.
So maybe a road victory at Rice wouldn’t be classified as one giant leap for KU football. But for Weis, this would have certainly qualified as one small step for a program on the road back to respectability. Start with Rice, then the Big 12, then move your sights further in the galactic abyss.
It all sounded pretty good, right up until Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps threw a pick-six interception on KU’s first offensive drive. It was an ominous beginning in a 23-14 loss, a setback that served as a reminder that Weis and Kansas may not be ready to take off on just yet.
KU managed just 270 total yards, while Heaps was just 13 of 28 for 157 yards and two interceptions, including the back-breaking pick-six to Rice linebacker Michael Kutzler.
“Our defense did a great job and they put us in position to win the game,” Heaps said. “And offensively, we just couldn’t going.”
The passing struggles weren’t all on Heaps — KU was plagued by myriad drops — but whatever the issues, they were crippling.
“For the second week in a row,” Weis said. “I think our passing game has been inadequate.”
And for the second straight year, KU surrendered a fourth-quarter lead against Rice. This time, it wasn’t quite as heartbreaking. After taking a 14-13 lead on a quarterback sneak by Heaps with 1:01 left in the third quarter, the Jayhawks ran out of stream in the final period.
Rice kicker Chris Boswell, whose leg had beaten KU on a last-second field-goal last year in Lawrence, gave Rice a 16-14 lead on a 56-yard field goal. And Rice put the game away on a six-play, 50-yard touchdown drive with 3:28 left.
It was the Jayhawks’ 22nd straight loss against a team from the Football Bowl Subdivision. And it’s worth remembering that last year the Jayhawks’ 25-24 home loss to Rice evolved into a 1-11 debacle. One year later, with one final non-conference game against Louisiana Tech next week, the Jayhawks will have to find a new way forward.
“It hurts, just knowing that the defense did a great job out there,” said senior running back James Sims, who had 109 yards on 19 carries. “They had stop after stop, just back to back to back. We’ve got to capitalize on that.”
The defense, which made two interceptions and limited Rice to just two field goals in the first half, couldn’t get any help from an offense that lacked consistency all night.
The Jayhawks had taken a 14-13 lead late in the third quarter, set up by a crucial interception by safety Isaiah Johnson, who stepped in front of a pass from Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue and returned the pick 31 yards to the Rice 16-yard line. After losing 7 yards on first down, Heaps then connected with sophomore receiver Tre’ Parmalee on a 17-yard pass over the middle, setting up a short touchdown run.
The defense then came up with another crucial turnover when McHargue air-mailed a pass into the arms of cornerback Dexter McDonald near KU’s 10-yard line. But the offense stalled again.
“When I was backed up like that,” Weis said. “I was trying to change field position. At that point right there, the No. 1 thing I wanted to do was regain field position.”
The offense nearly did — but a tipped punt set up Boswell’s go-ahead field goal.
When the week began, Weis had offered a limited prediction, saying KU might need to score more than 30 points in order to take down Rice at home. His math: Rice averaged close to 31 points per game last season, and veteran-laded Owls had racked up more than 500 yards in a season-opening loss at Texas A&M.
Maybe that’s why Weis attempted to open up the offense in the first half. And all things considered, it didn’t work. Heaps’ second interception came right before the half, setting up another Rice field goal. The pass was intended for Justin McCay on a deep route down the left sideline, but it never made it.
“We were trying to take a shot, and unfortunately it didn’t go the way were hoping for,” Heaps said. “And it was the exact opposite, and big things like that are things that lead to losses.”
Heaps and the passing game made up for one early miscue on a 77-yard touchdown pass to Tony Pierson early in the second quarter. But even that turned out to be an aberration. For another night, the script was the same. Another road loss. Another trip spoiled. Another setback for a program still grounded.
“We really just kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Heaps said. “Or (we had) turnovers or just (had) missed opportunities and we’ve just got to clean that stuff up.”