"We felt really good coming into the game about our preparation on offensive and defensive sides of the ball. We practiced very well this week. We just couldn't make enough plays to win the game. I thought our defense at times was superb. At the end, we didn't finish like we wanted, but I thought they played well enough to win,” Mangino said after the game.
He continued, “Offensively we made some plays early on, and made some plays as we went along, but we didn't make enough to get points. The effort was tremendous by the offensive unit and they made a lot of good plays today, but just not enough."
But the key to this loss was at the quarterback position. And any KU fans who forgot the value that one player can have on a team’s performance and psyche got a tough reminder again Saturday. For the second time in as many weeks, KU’s starting quarterback left the field with an injury and didn’t return.
To open the game, KU’s Jason Swanson stepped in for the injured Adam Barmann and engineered an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown, two-and-a-half minute drive the efficiency of which Mussolini would have loved. The drive was highlighted by a big gain on a flea flicker on the first play as well as Swanson connecting on three-of-five passes for 67 yards.
KU 7, Buffs 0.
KU 14, Buffs 0.
However, on KU’s next possession, Swanson was leveled by Colorado defensive tackle Matt McChesney just after releasing a screen pass. Swanson immediately got up and walked off the field with his right arm hanging awkwardly at his side. Although KU led at the time 14-7, momentum shifted. Well, it scooted over a little, at least.
But momentum clearly jumped off KU’s bandwagon on the very next play when John Randle took a toss from Swanson’s replacement, walk-on John Nielsen, and swept around the left end for a gain of five yards. But before he went down, Randle fumbled. Colorado’s Dominique Brooks picked up the fumble and returned it 41 yards for the tying touchdown.
Loss of Swanson. Defensive touchdown. Game, set and match, Buffaloes.
“Those two plays hurt. Certainly those plays stung because we came out of the box pretty well,” Mangino admitted, referring to a 14-0 KU lead that took under four minutes to build.
And Mangino’s reaction to the news that Swanson was done for the day? “The trainer told me, and I just snapped my headset back on and said, ‘Well, we’ve been here before. We’ve got to find a way to do it,’” the coach said.
Later Mangino said, “I don’t want to get used to quarterbacks getting hurt, but boy, I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t. I’m going to stand by what I believe most, and that is that injuries are a part of the game and you have to overcome them.”
Once Swanson went down, KU did have some opportunities. However, for the most part, several of factors – including lousy field position courtesy of a terrific day by CU punter John Torp – worked against KU as they tried to piece together an offensive attack that at this point seems held together with duct tape and chicken wire.
Mangino made the determination early in the week that Nielsen would be the number two QB.
“(Neilsen’s) proven that he can manage the ball. He’s proven that he can come in out of the bullpen and take a snap and get the ball where it needs to go,” Mangino explained. “He knows how to take care of business.”
Nielsen also felt prepared. "I had good practices this week so I felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “I felt a little rusty because I haven't played a whole lot since last year. I missed a few reads and I could have done some things better, but I felt pretty good when I was out there."
Nielsen stepped in and did exactly what one would hope: he didn’t hurt the team, and he was a surprisingly solid passer for not having seen action in nearly a year, completing 21 of 31 attempts – 68 percent – for 183 yards passing and the first TD pass of his college career.
Okay, sure: Nielsen did throw an interception near the end zone in the game’s final minutes when KU had to score. However, this interception could just as easily be chalked up to intended receiver Brandon Rideau, who made little to no attempt to keep the Colorado defender from making the play.
Despite Saturday’s result, though, Mangino said his team continues to move forward. “Our kids are disappointed but they’re not discouraged. Sure, they want to win, but things just aren’t going our way right now. It’s not a discouraged locker room at all. We prepare our kids for success and adversity. As much as our kids would like instant results, it’s just not going to happen that way. They understand that.”
According to the coach, there’s still plenty to play for in the last two weeks of what some would paint as a disappointing season.
Mangino said, “We're going to play a very good Texas team coming in next week. If we're not going to have a party at the end of the year, maybe we'll spoil somebody else's.”
Then the coach smiled and said, “And it's been a long time since KU has been able to defeat K-State and Missouri in the same season, so there are still some things to play for.”
But as he has all season, Mangino praised his team mental toughness and determination.
“Our kids have a lot of fight in them. They have resolve. They know things haven't gone the way they'd like this year. Sometimes progress is painful. Nobody said it would be easy for any of us. But we're going to keep at it and get this thing where it ought to be and keep slugging away.”
Frankly, I wouldn’t bet the house and the kids and the dog on upsetting Texas next week; however, with MU standing more and more for “Monumental Underachievement” than “Missouri University,” that game looms large for both teams as they no longer play for Big 12 North contention and bowl trips (sorry, Tiger fans, but Iowa State’s going to roll you next week) but for bragging rights and a positive springboard into spring football and the 2005 season.
I can’t say I’d be surprised if John Nielsen gets the call next week so Swanson can have two weeks to heal. With Swanson, KU has a legitimate chance to beat Missouri and build toward an exciting 2005. Without him, they don’t and they have to deal with a lot of uncertainty going into next season.
But whatever happens, don’t stick a fork in the 2004 edition of the Jayhawks. There’s no bowl game in the balance, or a divisional title, but I don’t think this team is done just yet.
Other game notes:
- Charles Gordon had a great day – we’re talking PlayStation-football great – Saturday. Gordon intercepted two passes, nearly intercepted a third, picked up a QB sack, caught a 21-yard pass on offense, caused a fumble, and recovered a fumble.
Wonder if he’s ever considered playing quarterback?
- Senior Lyonel Anderson caught five passes for a career-high 60 yards today.