Missed chances both maddening, encouraging

For the better part of three quarters, victory was within the grasp of of the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday afternoon – but too many mistakes and missed chances closed the window of opportunity. Phog.net's Jim Williamson checks in with his take on Saturday's loss.

This started off as a piece blasting the Kansas Jayhawks for missing two key opportunities in Saturday afternoon's 48-14 loss to the #12-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Halfway home from Lawrence, though, that idea took a turn.

Call me crazy – trust me, I've been called worse before breakfast – but until KU Oklahoma State scored to take a 27-14 lead with 6:10 left in the third quarter, I truly thought the Kansas Jayhawks had a chance to upset the high-octane Aggies in Memorial Stadium.

Up to that point, the Jayhawks had found a way to keep the game within reach. They'd been out-gained, out-manned, out-everythinged, but they were only down 20-14.

I couldn't help but obsess over two blown chances earlier in the game.

The Jayhawks had the opportunity to overcome a 17-14 OSU lead with nine minutes left in the first half. KU had taken Cowboy kickoff to their own 26 and proceeded to march 73 yards to the OSU one yard line with two downs to punch it in. Runningback Angus Quigley took a handoff from quarterback Quinn Mecham off-tackle for no gain on third down. On fourth down, runnignback James Sims ran a nearly-identical play with nearly-identical results. The Cowboys took over on downs.

Oklahoma State went 96 yards before settling for a 21-yard field goal to go ahead, 20-14. That's where the game stood at intermission.

The real killer, however, was the second missed chance.

The score was still 20-14 two minutes into the third quarter. After the Cowboys turned the ball over to KU on downs, the Jayhawks offense couldn't do much with it. On fourth down and three at the 30. KU's field goal unit went in to attempt a routine 47-yarder with a stuff breeze at reliable kicker Jacob Branstetter's back.

If we've learned anything about KU's special teams this season, however, it's that nothing is routine. Oklahoma State blocked the field goal attempt.

If Kansas converts on either of those must-have opportunities or even – and I don't mean to be greedy – both of them, the complexion of the game changes. Maybe only for awhile, but it changes.

Instead, the obligatory KU Football sense of impending doom set in. Sure enough, five minutes later, Cowboy running back Jeremy Smith capped a six-play, 73-yard touchdown drive with a five-yard rush to extend Oklahoma State's lead to 27-14.

Gill knew two great opportunities had gotten away from his improving-but-struggling Jayhawks.

"Playing against a team like Oklahoma State, your offense has to score touchdowns," he said. "We had our opportunities to do that in the first half and third quarter. We were never able to maintain anything with our offense."

Four minutes later, KU fans were treated to another special teams meltdown: Jayhawk Alonso Rojas' punt at the KU 32 was blocked and returned by OSU's Michael Harrison for a touchdown. That made the score 34-14, and the game was, for all practical purposes, over.

So that's what happened. It wasn't fun to watch, and it had to be incredibly difficult for the Jayhawk seniors who were honored prior to the game to sit through. A 3-9 or 4-8 season is surely not what they signed on for.

Then it occurred to me on the way home from the game: to blow opportunities, you've got to have them. And to have them, you have to create them.

Four weeks ago, this same Jayhawks team walked off the field having lost to three conference opponents – none of whom are exactly on the Big 12 title game radar – by a combined score of 159-24. Two of those debacles were on the Jayhawks' home turf. If you'd asked me after that death march what I though of the Jayhawks' execution, I'd have said, "I think it's a great idea." (RIP, coach John McKay.)

Since then, they competed well with a solid Iowa State squad in Ames, beat Colorado in a shoot-out, easily covered the spread in the third most populated place in Nebraska on a Saturday afternoon and did what they needed to do to hang with the nation's #1-ranked total offense until a lack of bodies – and an ability to take advantage of a few breaks – caught up to them.

It's no coincidence that KU got better when Quinn Mecham became the starting quarterback. Settle down, Jordan Webb fans! Let me explain.

Mecham's limited practice repetitions meant that Gill had to simplify the offense. Results the last four games would seem to indicate that the juco transfer quarterback isn't the only one who has benefited from having less to think about. The entire offense is playing better.

For the defense's part, they're still very thin, and no one will mistake them for the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain units of the 1970's. They're playing much better, though, now that they're not on the field 40 minutes a game.

The same Kansas team that was embarrassed three weeks in a row by middle-of-the-road Big 12 teams is now finding itself, well, not being embarrassed. In fact, in addition to executing better, they're showing a tremendous amount of heart. They haven't quit, even though most Jayhawks fans did, and that speaks a lot to their belief in what Gill is trying to do.

Like it or not, this football team and its coaching staff are getting better. The coached are doing a better job – not great, but better – at designing game plans that this Kansas team can pull off. The team, in turn, is doing a better job at trusting in the game plan and executing it.

They're still light years away from being a bowl team or even a good team. After all, they still can't cash in on what seem to be gold-plated opportunities.

But a month ago, against worse opponents, they didn't even earn the opportunities to screw up.

At this point, that's progress. I'll take it.

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