Media Day Mantra Pays Off For Jayhawks

When I attended KU football media day several weeks ago, I screwed up enough nerve to remind a number of guys much, much bigger than I am that 2004 had been the Season of the Close Call.

Remember?  Last season, KU was just a few plays and a couple of blown fourth-quarter leads away from being 6-5 or maybe even 7-4 and bowl-eligible.  Instead, they finished the year 4-7 and chomping at the bit for spring ball to start.

So when I asked at least a dozen Jayhawk players back in August what the difference was going to be in 2005, thy all said the same thing: “This year, we’re going to finish.”

Saturday, in a game that could have been eerily reminiscent of 2004, that media day mantra -- finish -- played out in storybook fashion as KU fans were treated to one of the most exciting Jayhawk wins in a long time.  The ‘Hawks sent off 20 seniors by overcoming fourth quarter deficits of 14-6 and 21-14 to beat Big 12 North contender Iowa State 24-21 in overtime.  Scott Webb’s 35-yard field goal in the first overtime period won the first-ever overtime affair ever played in Lawrence.

“I’m very proud of the team overall today,” head coach Mark Mangino said after the game.  “We kept our poise.  Nobody panicked.  We just kept doing what we do best and just kept working the game plan on offense and defense and special teams and just kept the faith.”

He continued, “They kids stayed poised, so we just tried to execute what was planned and had faith that players would make plays.  And that’s what happened.”

And just how rewarding was it to exorcise at least a few of those 2004 demons?

“It’s very satisfying,” senior linebacker Banks Floodman said, smiling.  “And we win three out of our last four games.  Talk about finishing, that’s finishing right there.  I think it’s perfect that our season comes down to an OT game like that.  That’s the biggest test of finishing, and we did it.  That’s a lot of fun.”

Fellow linebacker Nick Reid said, “We played to the end, we never gave up and we got the win because of it.  It feels great!”

Kicker Scott Webb -- dubbed “The Gamewinner” by Reid -- reinforced the common theme of the day.  “We went with our philosophy to finish and we did it today.  We finished.  Iowa State took it down to the wire, and we had to do everything we could, but we got it done today,” he said.

True, this win didn’t come easy, which is something Mangino says makes it just that much more important.

“It’s a big win for our program,” he said.  “More than anything -- the win itself, the game, the circumstances are all great -- but the way we won today is really important to our kids and really tells a little bit about where we’re going with our program.”

He continued, “Every time we turn around, we’re having one of those landmark wins.  Stop a streak here, stop a streak there, beat somebody a few times in a row.  So this is an important win.  I think it’s more how we did it than actually the circumstances of the game.”

However, while he thoroughly enjoyed the win -- the ear-to-ear grin on his face was evidence of that -- he was quick to temper his enthusiasm.  The coach knows the Jayhawks have not yet arrived at the Promised Land.

“We’re moving in the right direction, we’re knocking down barriers nearly every year,” Mangino stated.  “Everyone in the conference respects us now.  ‘They’re a tough team.  When you play [Kansas], you have to buckle up.’  And that’s great.  That’s nice.”

He went on, “But we want to go beyond that respect.  Instead of saying, ‘Boy, they’re a tough, hard-nosed team, they’re getting better all the time,’ we want them to say that KU is a winning team.  And I think today’s game moves us in that direction.”

I do have to admit, when things got tight, I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”  And the collective groan -- including me, admittedly -- of the Memorial Stadium crowd was nearly audible when much-maligned back-up quarterback Brian Luke replaced injured starter Jason Swanson early in the final quarter with Kansas down, 14-6.

Then Luke went out and played with a confidence and efficiency KU fans hadn’t seen from him since he shredded the Missouri Tigers to wrap up the 2004 season.

Luke accounted for two touchdowns -- one a QB sneak from the one yard line early in the fourth and the other a 15-yard pass to redshirt freshman wideout Dexton Fields with just over a minute remaining in regulation -- that kept KU in the game and set the stage for Webb’s overtime heroics.

“When I saw Swanson holding his knee, I just said, ‘Okay, it’s time,’” Luke recalled.  “To tell you the truth, I had a sense of calm come over me.  I definitely didn’t want KU fans to have their last memory of me being he Oklahoma game.”

“To go out today, with the offensive line blocking the way they were blocking and the wideouts catching everything, that made it real easy for me,” Luke said.

I don’t usually like crow, especially after all that turkey from Thanksgiving.  But it can be tasty, especially with a light red wine and plenty of ketchup.  And Saturday afternoon, after Scott Webb’s field goal split the uprights, I was happy to dig in.

In pointing to this game as an important one, Mangino is once again seeing a much bigger picture than the casual fan.  Having been a part of two rebuilding projects before taking the KU job, he understands this is the kind of game that has been known to help a program turn the corner from bad to competitive, and from competitive to legitimate.

Saturday may have been the day that the Kansas Jayhawks -- both this team and the entire program -- learned how not to let the close ones get away.

Maybe November 26, 2005, will be one of those days that fans and players point to years down the road as one of those cornerstones that helped build a solid foundation underneath the kind of winning program Mangino was talking about.

If KU continues to get better and goes on to win a division or conference title, you can bet the farm that every player on the 2005 squad -- especially the seniors -- will point to Saturday as one of the games that made it possible.

But for now, let’s savor this win, and let’s enjoy the opportunity to play (and win) one more.  Seasons like this and bowl trips are still a big deal in these parts.

Other Game Notes

  • Although Mangino thinks an invitation to the Fort Worth Bowl is a good possibility, he said his team will just be happy to play one more, regardless of where.  “Whoever will have us, we’ll come with a smile on our face.  We want to play another game and have the chance to win another game this season.  So we’re thankful to whoever invites us.”
  • Along with his game-winning kick, Scott Webb booted two other field goals, including a career-long 48-yarder.
  • Nick Reid had 12 tackles against the Cyclones, giving him 410 for his career.  He now sits in eighth place on the Big 12 all-time tackles list.
  • Iowa State’s 56 yards rushing brings KU’s opponents season average to just 88.1 yards per game on the ground.  Barring a bowl game meltdown, the 2005 Jayhawks should break the 1948 squad’s mark of 109.2.  KU has held their last eight opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
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