“Junior high school in Western Pennsylvania,” he said. “I had hair then… (I was) a little trimmer. I didn’t have as many worries.”
Well, Coach, you can cross one worry off your list. Saturday afternoon, your Kansas Jayhawks ended a 36-game losing streak against the Nebraska Cornhuskers with a convincing 40-15 victory in the largest Memorial Stadium crowd since athletic director Al Bohl was monitoring the turnstiles.
And this wasn’t a fluke, folks: this was an old-fashioned butt-kicking, courtesy of the nation’s best defense and an offense led by quarterback Jason Swanson, a player who wasn’t even a part of the equation when the season started and who now seems to be the injection of confidence, cockiness and poise this team has needed all season long.
Before we go on, I’ll head you off at the pass: no, the Cornhuskers aren’t what they used to be. Hell, the Houston Texans aren’t what the Huskers used to be. But the “N” on the helmet still means something. It used to stand for “knowledge,” according to my dad. And sure, maybe today it stands for “not what we used to be.”
But that really didn’t matter Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and, probably, well into Sunday morning to a lot of Jayhawk fans – especially those who helped make up a new Memorial Stadium attendance record.
Make no mistake: this was a big win for three big reasons.
First, most immediately, it gets the Jayhawks over .500 and puts them in a legitimate position to get six wins and become bowl eligible. A month ago, that threshold seemed light years away to even the most die-hard KU fans, including me.
Second, and bigger picture, The Streak is over. You thought Roy Williams had a monkey on his back during his KU tenure? This 36-game losing streak had become a 700-pound gorilla sitting on Mark Mangino’s desk. And he got tired of looking at it every morning when he got to work.
“I’ll be honest: We needed to do something about this streak thing, because it was starting to get on my nerves,” Mangino said. “Everywhere I went, no matter what. I got letters from nice people that’ve been associated with the University for a long, long time were writing me letters about what it means to them. They’ll do anything to get a win over Nebraska.”
He paused and said, “Today, we don’t have to deal with that anymore.”
Finally, this convincing win should also stand as another substantial piece of evidence of how far Kansas Football has come since Mangino’s arrival. He talked about players and fans, but Mangino almost sounded like a politician, reminding voters that he’d just done something five of his predecessors couldn’t do – one of them, Don Fambrough, in two stints.
“For the players who have made an investment in our program and believe in what we’re doing here, (the win) was extremely important to them. It was extremely important for the fans who’ve suffered all these years,” the coach said.
Looking back, perhaps the biggest step taken by this Kansas football team and, maybe, the entire Kansas Football program, Saturday afternoon was mental.
As they did against Missouri, every time Nebraska seemed to threaten, the KU defense clamped down or the offense made a play. But this wasn’t Missouri. This was Nebraska, for crying out loud! And anytime the Huskers tried to get up off the turf, Kansas knocked them down again.
Example: With 7:32 left in the third quarter, the Huskers recovered a Mark Simmons fumble at the KU 16. Four plays later and about a minute later, Nebraska’s talented running back Corey Ross punched it in from the one. Nebraska QB Zac Taylor was intercepted by Kansas’ James McClinton on the ensuring two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Still, the lead seemed to be a paper-thin two points.
Now, let’s face it: most KU teams the past 20 years would have said, “Well, it was nice while it lasted,” and folded up their tent.
And let’s face it, redux: most Nebraska teams of the last 40 years would have said, “Excuse us: we need to totally shut you down from here on and win the game 52-17. Thanks for coming by, though!”
But thankfully for the Jayhawks and Kansas faithful, no one thought to make sure these teams knew what to say.
Just two plays after the Cornhusker kickoff, the Jayhawk offensive line opened up a hole you could have driven Gilbert Brown’s pants through and Jon Cornish took off on a 72-yard touchdown run, quickly restoring a nine-point Kansas lead, 24-15.
There was still 5:35 left in the third quarter, but with that one play, that one rebound from a tough situation, that one met challenge, the game was over.
And evocative of past KU-Nebraska games, the team with the lead left in their starters and added a safety, a touchdown pass and an interception return for a seven more in the fourth quarter – you know, just to make sure everyone knew who was in charge.
What makes that unusual is, this time, the team kicking the other while it was down was wearing blue.
Thanks, Coach Mangino. Thanks, Jayhawks. We’ll remember this one for a long time.