The distance between history and one more loss was measured by 89 yards of green turf, an expanse stretching from the line of scrimmage to the south end zone Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
It was the final minutes, and Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings broke the huddle and surveyed the defense. The Jayhawks trailed No. 5 TCU by four points with more than four minutes remaining. The ball was sitting at 11-yard line. It was first down.
“We needed to score,” junior receiver Nigel King said later.
On a dreary and freezing day, in front of a crowd that swelled and expanded as the prospect of an upset increased, the Jayhawks needed one more scoring drive to finish a miracle. In a game that had broke off the rails and bordered on insanity, KU interim coach Clint Bowen needed 89 yards to finish off the most unlikely Kansas victory in decades.
“A play or two away,” Bowen said.
The moment never came. The Jayhawks went three-and-out. TCU ran out the clock. The storybook was slammed shut in Kansas’ 34-30 loss to TCU on senior day in Lawrence.
“It was just a great effort,” senior linebacker Ben Heeney. “Everyone laid it out on the line for us.”
A moment later, he couldn’t hide the frustration. The Jayhawks (3-7, 1-6 Big 12) had conjured their best performances in years, leading the No. 5 team in the country 27-17 with more than eight minutes left in the third quarter, and they had still lost.
“This one (stinks),” Heeney said.
A third-and-20 that TCU had converted in the third quarter, when it still trailed by 10 and was pinned deep in its own territory, was a killer. It was a pick-six that was called back in the first half after Kansas was caught trying to substitute and had 12 men on the field. The Jayhawks could have led 20-7.
“We thought we had a chance to substitute,” Bowen said.
For Kansas, the difference was a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown from TCU’s Cameron Echols-Luper, a play that gave the Horned Frogs a 31-27 advantage with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
“We knew he was dangerous back there,” Bowen said. “(Punter Trevor Pardula) gets a hold of one probably too much, too much field to cover with his speed — with an athlete in space. That’s what happens.”
TCU (9-1, 6-1) tacked on a field goal early in the fourth quarter, and the Jayhawks cut the lead to 34-30 with a field goal of their own. Bowen believed Kansas would have another chance to score — and it did — but the Jayhawks ended up one touchdown short of their first victory over a top-five team since the 2008 Orange Bowl, when they beat Virginia Tech.
Instead, they settled for more progress under Bowen, who has burnished his credentials to be Kansas’ next coach. After last week’s 34-14 victory over lowly Iowa State, the Jayhawks produced their most inspired performance in years. Last week, TCU dumped Kansas State 41-20 in Fort Worth. This week, it was surviving the bitter Kansas cold and a stout KU defense, which held the Horned Frogs to 11 points fewer than their season average.
Standing outside Bowen’s post-game news conference, KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger said the last two weeks would certainly be taken into consideration during the school’s coaching search. But for now, the search is moving forward.
“These have been very strong performances, obviously,” Zenger said. “You have to do your due diligence, for the University of Kansas and for (Bowen).”
For Zenger, it was a measured approach on an otherwise inexplicable day at Memorial Stadium.
The Jayhawks scored their first touchdown on a 17-play drive that included a roughing the kicker penalty from TCU, a botched field-goal attempt that turned into successful fake, and a tipped ball that resulted in a first down inside the 5-yard line. Later, the Jayhawks took 27-17 lead when Cummings zipped a pass to King along the sideline. King, a Maryland transfer and sudden star in the passing game, tipped the ball up into the air while he tight-roped the sideline. After tipping the ball three times, he finally hauled the ball in and sprinted into daylight for a 78-yard touchdown.
“I pictured myself making a big play,” said King, who finished with five catches for 128 yards.
Cummings finished with 332 passing yards, and the Jayhawks finished with 418 total yards, 62 short of TCU’s yardage total. The Jayhawks forced two fumbles and added another interception, finishing plus-two in turnover ratio.
During his time in charge, Bowen has often talked about a blueprint for Kansas football. On Saturday, the blueprint was there, but the plan was just possession short.
“We never put limitations on our players,” Bowen said. “That’s the expectation.”
How the playoff contenders fared
1. Mississippi State (9-0) at Alabama
2. Oregon (9-1) did not play
3. Florida State (9-0) at Miami, late
4. TCU (8-1) beat Kansas 34-30
5. Alabama (8-1) vs. Mississippi State
6. Arizona State (8-1) at Oregon State, late
7. Baylor (8-1) did not play
8. Ohio State (9-1) beat Minnesota 31-24