It just felt different, though at the end, the pessimists could say it was more the same. Simply put, that wouldn’t be fair, as Clint Bowen’s first home game as interim Kansas coach ended with a 27-20 loss to Oklahoma State, in a game that was so close to being theirs instead.
The announced crowd of 31,985 (in reality, it may have been closer to 20,000) witnessed a different vibe from this Kansas team that has endured much pain the past five years. For starters, they came out looking like they had during better days, sporting blue helmets with the return of the red stripe, blue jerseys and gray pants, instead of some of the hideous uniform combinations they’ve sported recently. Then, there was the effort and passion of a team who has completely bought in to what Bowen, a lifelong Jayhawks is preaching.
“You know, we are proud of that effort. It is something that, you know, from day one that I got this opportunity, we talked about we were going to play hard for four quarters,” Bowen said. “I believe it's back-to-back weeks that our young men went out there and really did that. They stayed together. They played hard. They started making plays in the fourth quarter. We were able to get it to a tie game and obviously just got to get over that hump.”
Bowen promised to shake things up to get things going and he did, as he inserted redshirt junior Michael Cummings into the lineup at quarterback and his hunch paid off, as Cummings provided the spark that had been missing at that position for some time. Cummings completed 20 of his 37 passes for 288 yards and was mistake free until a late interception on fourth down which sealed Kansas’ fate.
The Kansas (2-4, 0-3) offense benefitted from Cummings’ leadership, which was evident on their first scoring drive of the game, when he hit receiver Nick Harwell for a 51-yard pass play, setting up a one-yard scoring run from Cummings, which gave the Jayhawks a 7-3 lead. As the game progressed, it appeared that Kansas had finally found its man under center.
“Michael, I think he showed a lot of physical and mental toughness out there,” Bowen said. “He played hard, made some plays. Probably missed a few, but Mike is, Mike's a competitive guy. He has that attitude that he can forget things.”
Oklahoma State (5-1, 3-0) responded and for awhile, took control, as they went to the half up 20-7, thanks to some big plays from their offense, led by quarterback Daxx Garman, who finished the day 17-31 for 161 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
In the past, Kansas could have folded up the tent and given up, but none under Bowen, led by the defense, which held one of the highest scoring offenses in the country to just 20 points and 275 yards of total offense, Kansas began scrapping and clawing their way back into the game.
“We were still fired up, (Ben) Heeney was in there getting everyone excited telling us and the offense that we are better than them, they may have a few more athletes than us but we are out playing them physically and that showed in the second half,” defensive lineman Keon Stowers said. “We shut them down in the second half, besides that kick-off return. We were ready to go”
Entering the final quarter down 20-10, the Jayhawks cut the lead to three, when freshman running back Corey Avery scored on a 23-yard run. Then, after another stop, KU got the ball back and began driving.
It looked as if they were going to pull it off, as Cummings led them down the field, appearing like he had picked up a big first down on third and long. However, after a booth review, it was ruled half a yard short and Bowen played it safe, opting to take a 35-yard Matthew Wyman field goal, which tied the score.
With all the momentum on their side, the few fans, now on their feet sensed that Kansas would get the stop needed, as 6:55 remained. But, in just 12 seconds, everyone was reminded of the snake bitten luck that has become commonplace at Kansas, when the Cowboys’ Tyreek Hill, who may be one of the fastest men in the nation took the ensuing kickoff and raced 99 yards, virtually untouched to give them the lead for good.
“Of course, when Tyreek gets into the open field, it’s very difficult to catch him,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “That’s where we’re at. We have a long ways to go, but at least we’re leaving here with a win.”
Still, there was a different feel around the Kansas players after. Players, who have endured so much negativity, now feel reason to hope and continue to fight, as they’re taking their cue from their coach, who also had tears in his eyes following an effort that he hopes will become commonplace under his watch. For the players, they feel it’s their responsibility to give it all for their coach, who has actually stood in their shoes before them.
“It is awesome, he is definitely a player’s coach and we all love him,” linebacker Ben Heeney said. “We all try and play in order to win for him.”
Kansas now braces for two tough road games with a bye week sandwiched in between, beginning with next week’s trip to Texas Tech. They won’t play another home game until November 8 against Iowa State.