Dayne Crist stood near the sideline at Huskie Stadium, a chain-link fence separating a somber quarterback from a team trying to escape town. His pads had been replaced by sweats, his face was stoic and joyless.
More than an hour earlier Saturday, he stood in the pocket with a receiver breaking into the clear, a broken defense offering a fourth-quarter gift. Kansas led Northern Illinois by three points. It was fourth-and-17 at the Huskies’ 29. The gusting wind made a field goal a high-risk proposition. So KU coach Charlie Weis called a play that would send running back Tony Pierson down the field, hopefully drawing the attention of a safety.
Senior receiver Kale Pick was open down the sideline. Maybe Crist rushed the throw. Maybe he was just startled that Pick was so open. Or maybe the pass, which sailed out of Pick’s reach, was just a misfire.
“I should have made that throw,” Crist said.
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This was the scene in the moments after Kansas’ 30-23 loss. For the second time in three weeks, the Jayhawks squandered a double-digit lead in the second half. For the second time in three weeks, a quarterback had to endure questions about the throws he didn’t complete. For the second time in three weeks, a coach had to find ways to take the heat off his struggling signal-caller.
Crist completed 10 of 26 passes for 147 yards, the third time he’s completed fewer than 50 percent. Some of the blame, of course, may lie with the receivers or shaky pass protection. But Weis knew the question was coming.
“Is this the quarterback controversy question?” Weis said when asked if Crist would be KU’s quarterback no matter what.
To say that Crist is the sole — or even biggest — reason for the Jayhawks’ 1-3 start would simply be unfair. But to say that Crist’s performance during the season’s first four weeks has been adequate would perhaps be untruthful.
“If there’s reason to replace the first guy with the second guy, you go ahead and do it,” Weis said. “It doesn’t make a difference what position they play. I think if the second guy was close enough to the first guy, sometimes that decision would be a lot easier.”
In this case, the second guy, by default, would be redshirt freshman Michael Cummings.
“There’s a big separation between the first guy and the second guy,” Weis said.
On Saturday, the Jayhawks’ offense was at its best when Weis inserted junior receiver Christian Matthews, a former quarterback, into the game to run the wildcat formation. Matthews finished with five carries for 43 yards, and he anchored a 14-play, 71-yard scoring drive that gave Kansas a 17-13 lead in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
That new offensive wrinkle, employed during both halves, along with the season debut of junior running back James Sims, allowed the Jayhawks to trail 13-10 at halftime. Sims reintroduced himself with a 26-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter.
And when junior cornerback Tyler Patmon picked off Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown and a 23-13 lead with 14:33 left in the fourth quarter, it looked as though KU’s streak of 16 straight losses away from Lawrence might be history.
“We gave it back just as fast, though,” senior safety Bradley McDougald said, “and that’s what hurt us.”
Indeed. The collapse began when kicker Ron Doherty missed the extra point after a penalty pushed the kick back 10 yards. And moments later, on the first play of the next drive, the Huskies struck right back on a well-executed play fake that turned into a 65-yard touchdown pass. The play started with Lynch faking a run before dishing off a quick jump-pass to receiver Martel Moore, who was streaking past the defense.
“A (Tim) Tebow pop-pass,” McDougald said.
On the next drive, the Jayhawks needed an answer. And Crist overthrew Pick. KU went away from the wildcat; Weis said the Huskies had adjusted. And the Jayhawks’ pass-protection crumbled.
Northern Illinois, which had spent most of the week as a heavy favorite, finished off the comeback with two scoring drives. And the Jayhawks, who enter an off week before a showdown with Kansas State, were piling onto the team bus, the questions following them into the cool Illinois night.
“For the second time this year,” Weis said, “you have a two-score lead in the second half. And you can’t get over that hurdle.”