Today, at 3-3 after a somewhat lackluster 3-0 start, seven wins seems light years away. And the reasons became crystal clear Saturday night.
Throw out the fact that the sputtering Oklahoma Sooners, who are maybe the third best team in the Big 12 South, would run away with the Big 12 North.
Throw out the fact that KU was in a position to win the game until Ronnie Amadi quit on a play and got toasted for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 3:38 left in the third quarter.
And saddest of all, throw out a world-class performance by the Jayhawk defense. Again.
It’s official: Mark Mangino has hitched his wagon to senior workhorse Brian Luke, the Cinderella story who came from out of nowhere to lead Kansas to a near-win over BCS-bowl game winner Texas and to a rout of archrival Missouri last season. Little did we know at the time in a period of eight days, the young man had played the two best games of his life. He wasn’t flashy, but he played within himself, and he made the plays he was capable of making.
But Saturday night – and throughout most of the season -- Luke has lacked any degree of consistency that Mangino has harped on for two years. He missed open receivers left and right in an 11-for-30 performance that included three interceptions and a fumble. And that’s been the rule this season, not the exception.
Anyone who chooses to blame Mangino or offensive coordinator and perennial fan punching bag Nick Quartaro for lousy play calling wasn’t watching same game I was. The plays were there. Sure, KU’s offensive line had a lot of trouble moving the big, physical Sooners around on the run, they did a solid enough job of giving Luke time on pass plays. And receivers were open.
Regrettably, Luke’s liabilities overshadow his assets at this point.
So where does this leave the Jayhawks? In a really bad spot.
Having lost three in a row – two of which they should have won – Kansas limps into Boulder like a Liberian tanker next Saturday to take on an angry Colorado Buffalo squad that was taken to the woodshed by Texas, 42-17.
And speaking of Texas, on November 12, KU travels to Austin. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the ‘Hawks can sneak up on the Longhorns again. And don’t think Texas won’t be out to show that last year’s near-upset was simply a blip on the radar screen.
Missouri’s defense is almost as bad as KU’s defense, but unless John Hadl finds out he’s got eligibility left or if the Tiger assistants forget to shove Gary Pinkel in a locker room closet so he can’t call 15 bubble screens, I don’t see KU’s offense being able to keep the defense off the field long enough to recover from chasing Brad Smith around. However, it is a rivalry game, it is in Lawrence and it seems that Mangino owns the Tigers, so anything could happen.
Nebraska still struggles offensively, but their defense has proven to be better than a lot of people thought they’d be. That’s not exactly what the KU offense ordered.
By the time they get to their final game against the Cyclones, the Jayhawks could be 4-6, and maybe even 3-7 and playing out the end of a seven-game losing streak. The goal of a bowl game is unattainable. The lofty goal of contending in the Big 12 North is long gone. And who knows what sort of team dynamics kick in between a national-caliber KU defense and an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown now in eight quarters.
The bottom line is that the three home games are absolutely, positively must win-games to not only save the season but, perhaps, save Mark Mangino’s job. Granted, he’s the most popular coach since Coach Fam, and he’s brought the team light years from his predecessor, particularly when it comes to talent.
But it’s also apparent that he’s hit a wall: we’re now in season two of watching remarkable defensive efforts go to waste. What used to be 30-point blowouts are now seven- to 10-point losses that could have – and often should have – been wins.
Of course, freshman Kerry Meier is waiting in the wings. From most indications, he’ll be the starter next year.
Unfortunately, unless Mangino leads his team to a 3-2 record to finish the season, the very coach who coveted Meier, who speaks so highly of him and would benefit the most from him may not be around to coach him.