The punter started sprinting to his left, and in that moment, something felt seriously off. What was this? Where was he going?
Kansas was backed up in its own territory, facing a fourth-and-13. The ball was at the 16-yard line, in the shadow of KU’s end zone. Of all the down and distance scenarios in football history, of all the times to attempt a fake punt, this didn’t feel like one of them.
But here was KU punter Trevor Pardula, taking a clean snap, reading the defensive rush, and veering off toward the left sideline. The play went nowhere.
“There was a gray area there,” Kansas coach Charlie Weis would say, explaining the decision.
By the end of the afternoon, after Texas Tech finished off a 54-16 thrashing of Kansas on a Homecoming Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the fake punt futility could have been cast aside as another forgettable moment in the Jayhawks’ 22nd-straight Big 12 loss.
But in the seconds after the play, as Weis threw his hands up on the sideline, it was already one of the most head-scratching momentum swings in recent Big 12 history.
To that point, the Jayhawks had played No. 20 Texas Tech even for more than a quarter, an earnest attempt to break a Big 12 losing streak that had lasted 1,063 days. But then Pardula was swallowed up. The Red Raiders took over. And two plays later, Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield rushed up the middle for a 19-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
“We have a lot of momentum going,” KU quarterback Jake Heaps said. “And for them to get an easy score … that was tough.”
Weis would later explain that KU had installed a fake punt to be used if Texas Tech’s punt-return unit gave a certain look. Pardula thought he had the right read. But he apparently got caught reading the wrong shades of gray.
“I’m not sitting there saying he did it completely on his own,” Weis added. “I’ll ultimately take the responsibility when there’s a gray area. Kids are kids.”
For a KU, which has spent the last three years grasping at air against Big 12 opponents, it was a demoralizing collapse. After building a 10-0 lead, the Jayhawks watched as the Red Raiders rolled off 54 straight points. It was, in plain terms, a brutal kick to the gut. And if KU is making progress under Weis, it wasn’t readily apparent on Saturday.
“We gotta do some soul-searching,” Heaps said. “And see how guys respond.”
Mayfield, a freshman walk-on making his fifth career start, completed 33 of 51 pass attempts for 368 yards before leaving with a knee injury late in the third quarter. No worries, though, because back-up Davis Webb entered and threw a 25-yard touchdown to make the score 44-10 on his second play from scrimmage. By the end, Texas Tech’s fast-paced offense had run an astounding 100 plays.
“Really no adjustments,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the slow start. “I thought they settled in.”
The day, had started with a lot more promise. In the opening minutes of its Big 12 opener, Kansas had taken a 10-0 lead, the first time the Jayhawks scored in the first quarter this season. Junior linebacker Ben Heeney set up a field goal with an interception. And Heaps finished off a nine-play drive with a 25-yard touchdown strike down the seam to tight end Jimmay Mundine.
It was the most prolific KU had looked all season — and the momentum wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. After Heaps completed seven of his first eight passes, he finished the day 16 of 32 for 189 yards.
Weis had leaned on a five-receiver passing set in the early stages, but he also wanted to avoid a “horse race” with Texas Tech. So he mixed in an option look designed for back-up quarterback Michael Cummings. In the end, neither proved all that successful.
Heaps added to the collapse with an interception on the opening play of the second half. And three botched snaps in the second half turned into two scoring drives for Texas Tech.
“The quarterback-center changes alone killed us,” Weis said.
Kansas (2-2) will attempt to regroup in time for a road game at TCU next week. For the 22nd straight time, the Jayhawks couldn’t match up to a Big 12 opponent. And like so many other days, it wasn’t particularly close.
“We got all the momentum in the world,” KU junior nose tackle Keon Stowers said, “and a couple plays turned that into nothing. It definitely went by quick.”