LAWRENCE — The unthinkable was happening, and those who stayed in Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon didn’t want to jinx anything.
Standing behind the south end zone, Kansas interim athletic director Sean Lester approached Jim Marchiony, an associate director.
“Don’t. Say. Anything,” Marchiony said.
Moments later, there was KU running back James Sims finding a seam in the Colorado defense and bursting away for a 28-yard touchdown run. Kansas, after trailing by four touchdowns with 12 minutes left, led by a touchdown with 52 seconds to go.
On the raucous KU sideline, good vibes had taken over. Until the voice of a fan caught the ear of linebacker Steven Johnson.
“Hey!” the fan yelled. “You don’t smile until you win!”
Considering the way this season had gone, there was good reason for caution. And, sure enough, the Buffaloes drove the ball to KU’s 8 with eight seconds to play. But Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins tossed back-to-back incompletions in the direction of wide receiver Paul Richardson, and Kansas could finally celebrate the greatest comeback victory in program history.
Kansas 52, Colorado 45.
Now, it was time to smile.
“That last incomplete pass, I hugged everybody that was close to me,” KU offensive lineman Brad Thorson said. “There’s no quit in anybody’s heart.”
The Jayhawks, by finding the will to score 35 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, were simply following their coach’s orders. From Day 1, over and over and over again, Turner Gill has told them that believing was the most important thing.
“I personally want to say thank God,” Gill said.
So far, if there’s one thing Gill has done well, it’s miracles. The Jayhawks lost to lower-division North Dakota State in the opener, then knocked off defending ACC champion Georgia Tech the next week. They hadn’t competed at that level since, and here was another blowout on the prairie horizon against the Buffaloes, who led 35-10 at halftime. The Jayhawks love Gill because he has been steady no matter what the result, but his team’s performance hasn’t come close to matching his personality.
On Saturday, that ended up being a good thing, making for an uplifting story that only 25,000-or-so people actually got to witness. It also ended an 11-game Big 12 losing streak.
This was set up to be a retro fall Saturday in Lawrence, a picturesque afternoon spent watching a bad football team that would drag fans back to those Terry Allen days. The game wasn’t televised, and the scalpers on Mississippi Street were begging passersby to buy their remaining tickets minutes before kickoff.
Not many people wanted to watch this. The last two home games, Kansas had lost 59-7 to Kansas State and 45-10 to Texas A&M. The Jayhawks were starting junior-college transfer Quinn Mecham at quarterback, and there was no reason — other than Colorado’s own ineptitude — to think this one would go any differently.
As kickoff approached, the game felt secondary. Two couples from Elwood made the 90-minute drive but were content to miss kickoff drinking mimosas in a parking garage.
“We used to enjoy a couple drinks before the game,” Alan Doubrava said. “Now, we need a couple drinks before the game.”
He was kidding. Sort of.
“I think we are all willing to give Gill two or three years,” Doubrava said. “Probably the biggest frustration is that they’re not even competitive this year.”
After kickoff, as Colorado jumped out to a 7-0 lead, season-ticket holders Dave and Jan Anderson of Leawood continued to tailgate behind the east side of the stadium. For the Andersons, it was good enough to have a view of the stadium video board from the parking lot.
“I say bring (Mark) Mangino back,” Jan said of KU’s former coach. “We liked him. He’s in Florida laughing.”
If Mangino is laughing at Gill’s program, he’s certainly not alone. But Gill doesn’t hear much of it, if any. Gill began this week just like every other one, by sifting through a list of 26 motivational terms and choosing one that fits his team’s current mood. This week, he chose “relentless.”
“Sometimes,” Gill said, “words trigger something in people’s minds.”
In the first half, there was no sign that a change was coming. Mecham threw two ugly interceptions, while Hawkins completed 20 of 24 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns. Colorado running back Rodney Stewart gashed KU for 117 yards and two scores as the Buffaloes outgained the Jayhawks 316-147.
At that point, a good portion of the announced crowd of 40,851 headed for the exits.
“We thought the game was over,” Stewart said.
Gill would not let the Jayhawks think that. KU’s locker room remained a positive place, and Gill actually uttered the words, “Get ready for the biggest comeback ever.”
“He said that,” Johnson said. “I lie to you not.”
Gill said it, but nobody else seemed to believe it. Colorado built a 45-17 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“The Colorado guys were talking trash to us saying ‘Look at the scoreboard,’æ” Wilson said, “and I really had no response.”
Before they could even think about playing for a win, the Jayhawks focused on playing for pride. Make a play. Score a touchdown. Keep Colorado from scoring.
“We knew we could play better than we had,” Thorson said.
KU began to play better, pulling to within 45-24 with a 13-yard Sims touchdown run. The clock read 11:05. Then, Gill called for an onside kick, which was recovered by Bradley McDougald.
“I didn’t know we were doing an onside kick, and people started yelling we had the ball,” Wilson said. “I thank Coach for making that call.”
Wilson thanked Gill by catching a fade pass from Mecham and diving into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown. It was 45-31, and the clock read 9:26.
On Colorado’s ensuing drive, Buffaloes coach Dan Hawkins called for a reverse run to receiver Toney Clemons. KU defensive end Toben Opurum read the play and corralled Clemons, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by nickel back Tyler Patmon for a 28-yard touchdown return. It was 45-38, and the clock read 7:12.
“That right there showed how we play relentless,” Gill would say.
Two plays later, Patmon intercepted Cody Hawkins at the Colorado 37.
On KU’s first offensive play, Mecham threw behind Patterson, who saved him with a one-handed catch for 17 yards.
“You get your hand on it, you gotta catch it,” Patterson said.
Suddenly, this was a different Kansas team. Sims ran the next four plays, capping the game-tying drive with a 6-yard touchdown. It was 45-45, and the clock read 4:30.
“The momentum shift was intense,” Thorson said. “Play after play, guys were taking the extra individual effort to make something happen. It was unbelievable.”
At that point, a Kansas win felt like a foregone conclusion, and it was. A Kansas win!
The Jayhawks won their first Big 12 game since Oct. 10, 2009. For a magnificent 11 minutes of football, Kansas found a way to forget about all of that and anticipate good things happening.
“Everybody is like, ‘Get rid of Coach Gill,’ ” Johnson said. “Coach Gill is the best coach I’ve ever played for in my whole life from little league until now. It just shows what we can do when we believe in ourselves.” .