LAWRENCE — This week, the Kansas Jayhawks talked about forgiveness.
They have lost 10 of their last 12 games, tasting defeat just about every way it can be served up. In the process, through the resignation of former coach Mark Mangino and the painful beginnings under Turner Gill, they have suddenly yanked the rug out from under a fan base that was just starting to become crazed for football.
The sellouts of the past three seasons are gone now. The student section hasn't risen to the top of the east side of Memorial Stadium's bleachers since the first half against North Dakota State, the shocking loss that first indicated tonight's game against Kansas State could very well function as shot at redemption.
Turns out, after a 55-7 loss to the Baylor Bears in KU's last outing, that's exactly what it is.
"I think the fans will forgive us if we come out with a win against Kansas State," KU senior Johnathan Wilson said. "It's crazy because they expect a lot out of us."
And when you think of it, maybe it is crazy — Kansas football players seeking forgiveness because of losing?
When Wilson arrived in Lawrence in the summer of 2007, the Jayhawks had never been to bowl games in consecutive seasons. The basketball program was the one that pleaded for fan forgiveness after brutal losses, and football was nothing more than a way to entertain the crimson and blue faithful until "Late Night at the Phog" (which happens to be Friday night, if you're looking for more symbolism of this game's importance).
Wilson didn't notice how much things had changed until this season, until the losses continued to pile up under Gill. There is an expectation that Kansas should win more than it loses now because, hey, it's been proven that it can happen.
"I'm glad to see that they at least care about the program," Wilson said. "That's something I really recognized over the last couple weeks. I don't want to lose the support. Even though it's my last year, I don't want those guys behind me to lose the support because, when you're winning here and the fans are behind you, it's a great thing."
The Jayhawks (2-3, 0-1 Big 12) do not appear like they will be a very good team this season. They are starting freshmen at quarterback (Jordan Webb) and running back (James Sims), they are thin on the offensive line and, to this point, have shown no ability to make plays defensively (KU has forced three turnovers and tallied four sacks, none by a defensive lineman).
Still, this KU team has plenty at stake. If they want there to be some level of expectations when next season begins, they had better show more promise in the next seven games. Beating Kansas State (4-1, 0-1) would certainly qualify as showing promise, particularly because that mild-mannered yet menacing old man named Bill Snyder will march the sidelines tonight at Memorial for the first time since 2004.
That game, a 31-28 KU victory, ended an 11-game K-State winning streak in the rivalry and kicked off a string of three home wins in a row for the Jayhawks in the series. Making it four would make sure Snyder can't begin to build the same kind of surge he stirred up in the 1990s.
"You do want to stop the momentum," KU sophomore receiver Daymond Patterson said. "They got the last one at home, and we got the year before that. Especially in a rivalry game with an in-state rivalry, you want to protect your house. You don't want to go out there and lay an egg in a game this big."
The Jayhawks did not shy away from discussing the magnitude of this one, but what about the coaches? They're new to the dynamic between KU and K-State, while Snyder will have his staff well-schooled on what it means to keep the mythical bird grounded.
Gill said the best rivalry he's been a part of is Nebraska-Oklahoma (which, of course, brings an entirely different dynamic). KU offensive coordinator Chuck Long, who played at Iowa, figured tonight would probably feel a lot like a rendezvous between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones (only those teams do not share a conference). KU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush has been a part of Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Texas-Texas A&M.
Torbush knows his first Kansas-Kansas State game is plenty big, especially given the circumstances.
"At this point in time, with what happened to us our last game, this game regardless of who we're playing is tremendously important," Torbush said. "But with K-State being the next game, it puts even more importance on this ball game."
Some KU players acknowledged that they didn't think the last 12 games could be forgotten based on one win against Kansas State. Hey, that would be giving the Wildcats too much power, right?
"I don't think all will be forgiven," Patterson said. "Because we've dropped some games that we shouldn't have. But I do think it'll help out a lot."