AMES, Iowa — Several times during Kansas' brutal six-game losing streak, KU coach Turner Gill said that the losses came down to three to five plays that didn't go the Jayhawks way — questionable considering his team lost those games by an average of 34.3 points.
After KU's 13-10 loss to Iowa State on Saturday, Gill made that claim again. Only this time, it couldn't have been more true.
Gill has lost favor with the crimson-and-blue faithful because of demoralizing blowout defeats. But an inspired performance by the Kansas defense against Iowa State kept the Jayhawks in the game for 60 minutes and finally put Gill in pressure-packed moments. He was in the position to win or lose the game with a judgment call, and the decisions he made would matter, resonating on the field and in the locker room.
Exciting, right? Games like Saturday's are the reason that players work so hard all year and coaches spend too much time away from their families. A short dance with glory was there to be had for KU (2-7, 0-6 Big 12), which had not won a Big 12 game since this weekend a year ago. Many of these players were a part of that miraculous and stirring comeback over the Colorado Buffaloes. They had not given up then, and they were not going to give up now.
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Kansas faced third-and-goal from the Iowa State 1-yard line in the middle of the third quarter, trailing 10-7. The Jayhawks had blown several scoring chances in the first half, and this was the period that had killed them all season.
On the macro level, this was a statement play for their embattled coach. On the micro level, with 36 inches of grass separating them from their goal, it was about the players.
Gill and KU offensive coordinator Chuck Long called for an option play to the right. It was doomed from the start, as quarterback Jordan Webb looped backward and running back Darrian Miller moved too far forward. There was no pitch option, and Webb had to salvage a 1-yard loss.
"We didn't execute that very well," Gill said.
That was one of the three to five plays. Anybody could see that. KU now had fourth-and-goal from the 2, and Gill faced one of the hardest decisions he's had to make this season. Offensive players, even ones who are struggling as the Jayhawks have, love to go for it. Gill had to weigh the risk of not scoring any points with the risk of deflating the unit's confidence even further by opting for a field goal.
Gill chose the game-tying field goal.
"If it had been one (yard)," Gill said, "we would have went for it."
One yard made all the difference in Gill's mind. The game was tied at 10, but Gill may have lost with his players.
"I feel like we should have run it up the middle," KU wide receiver D.J. Beshears said.
Iowa State had given KU plenty of gifts — three turnovers and a run-heavy offensive game plan — and all the Jayhawks had to show for it was equality on the scoreboard.
Kansas hadn't taken advantage because of a blocked 49-yard Alex Mueller field goal in the second quarter (Gill elected not to go for it on fourth-and-5, leading 7-3), a missed Mueller 36-yard attempt and a fumble by James Sims at the Iowa State 18. Because KU failed to make any big plays in the fourth quarter, those gaffes ended up in the crucial three to five snaps that cost the Jayhawks the game.
But there was one last scenario that tested Gill. The Jayhawks trailed 13-10, and KU's suddenly anemic offense faced fourth-and-11 from its own 19 with about three minutes remaining. As many coaches would, Gill decided to punt and hope his defense could get the ball back for the offense using two timeouts.
The defense felt Gill was showing that he was confident in them, but Iowa State running back Jeff Woody bulldozed KU's defenders for runs of 6, 8, 6 and 25 yards to put the game away. It was a cold and heartless end.
"It's the same whether we get beat by 100 or get beat by one," Miller said.
Gill said the same, but the evaluation of this loss will go differently. The moments were bigger, more meaningful, and they carried the same result.
"All you can do," Gill said, "is keep working."