A top five team visited Lawrence on a cold day and struggled against a gritty Kansas team, who was a huge underdog coming into the affair and only had heart and shear will to combat the opponent who was expected to roll and leave the Jayhawks broken, beaten and scarred at game’s end.
Funny thing happened, though. The Jayhawks gave the opponent everything they could handle and came minutes away from shocking the college football world. On that day in 2004, Texas would survive, thanks to some help from the officials and leave Kansas with a narrow four point escape. The rest was history for them that year and the year after.
On this Saturday, nearly 10 years to the day of that memorable game, it was TCU who nearly met the same fate and with the exception of any help from the officials, the narrative was nearly identical. Unfortunately for Kansas, so was the conclusion, as the Horned Frogs narrowly escaped by the same four point margin, as they survived Kansas 34-30 on a bitterly cold day at embarrassingly sparse Memorial Stadium. The game earned the Jayhawks respect and admiration from everyone involved, from the Horned Frogs to the fans, to the interim coach that they fight for in hopes of earning him the honor of having the interim title taken off his title.
“They did. Love our players. I love their attitude. It's been that way for weeks now,” Kansas interim coach Clint Bowen said. “They’ve created a culture amongst themselves where the teams come together a lot tighter, a lot -- bonding together, things we've been doing. And they've invested during the week. We went out Sunday through Thursday, in the bitter cold every day. Over two hours a day every day, they invested time, they prepared. And it hurts when they put that much into it. At the same time, they're starting to realize that when you're that truly invested and good things happen, the excitement comes with it.”
The excitement started quickly, as TCU (9-1, 6-1) marched down the field on the opening possession of the game and scored on a 27-yard scoring strike from quarterback Travone Boykin to receiver Ty Slanina. Kansas (3-7, 1-6) would respond with a 17 play 75-yard drive, capped off by a Corey Avery score from two yards out.
In the second quarter, the Jayhawks grabbed the lead, extending it into the second half and when quarterback Michael Cummings snuck in from a yard out, Kansas led 20-10. Suddenly, a game that was viewed as mostly forgettable to most pundits and obviously many in Lawrence was the focal point of college football. All of a sudden day, Senior Day looked to be the most memorable football experience for many Jayhawks who took that field for the final time.
“We played against the best team in the Big 12 and we competed all day. It’s disappointing, especially as seniors and it being our last time playing here, it’s hard to swallow,” linebacker Ben Heeney said. “I’m very proud of my team, very proud of the way everyone played, no one gave up. Everyone was playing for us seniors, it really meant a lot.”
From there, it got silly. TCU running back Aaron Green scored on a three-yard run to cut the lead to 20-17. Then, the ensuing Kansas possession lasted all of one play, as Cummings found Nigel King for a 78-yard touchdown strike that happened after two deflection popped the ball up in the air for King snag it and race down the right sideline.
Things got crazier on the ensuing kickoff, as Kansas recovered a Horned Frogs fumble and suddenly had the ball in TCU territory with a chance to buy the highly favored opponent. However, miscues occurred and the Jayhawks gave the ball back.
Still, TCU looked dead in the water, facing third and 20 from their own 10. Boykin would hit Slanina again, this time for 26 yards and a first down. The play was arguably the biggest of the game, as it extended the drive, eventually leading to a touchdown, cutting the lead to three. When Kansas went three and out on its next possession, the collective Kansas back broke, as Cameron Echols-Luper took a Trevor Pardula punt back 69 yards for the score that gave TCU the lead for good.
“I thought that was maybe the play of the game,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the third down conversion. “Either that or the punt return I thought is the play of the game. They’re going to get the ball back around the 40 or 50, and you get a first down.”
Both teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter with Kansas’ proving bittersweet, as they had the ball first and goal from the 10 yard line after a TCU fumble. The Jayhawks would get one final crack, but when Cummings, who recorded the best passing performance by Kansas quarterback (19-37, 332 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) since Todd Reesing against Duke in 2009, fired an interception, TCU got the ball back and proceeded to run out the clock.
The Horned Frogs, had survived and left frozen Lawrence with their hopes of receiving a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff still in tact. Still, thoughts turned to Bowen, who has managed bring the fight and passion back to Kansas football, causing everyone to take notice and earning him more supporters by the day.
“I’ve already publicly told him I thought they did a great job, him and the staff. Number one, he cares about KU, that’s the ultimate number one. The same thing happens with Coach Snyder at Kansas State, he cares about Kansas State. I think Kansas people deserve somebody like that,” Patterson said. “I think that’s the kind of people they are here, they want somebody who’s going to care about them, also be a good ball coach, be able to recruit, and do some things. I think Coach Bowen and his staff has gotten his kids to play. Unless they find somebody better out there, but to me it would be hard to be any better than what they played today.”