KU Football on the Cusp of History?

So it all comes down to this on the final game of the regular season. Kansas vs. Missouri on ABC at 11:00 a.m. this Saturday at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo. A Jayhawk win guarantees the ‘Hawks a bowl appearance for the second straight year. And if KU does, in fact, beat the Tigers, the Jayhawks will be going to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.

Live it up KU football fans, life doesn’t get much better.

Kansas (6-5) and Missouri (7-4) march into their 115th Border Showdown (second most-played series in Division I-A and the oldest NCAA I series west of the Mississippi River with KU holding a 54-51-9 edge) heading in opposite directions. After losing four of five games, including four straight defeats, KU has now won three straight games and comes into Columbia as one of the hottest teams in the Big 12. The Jayhawks’ victory last Saturday over K-State (39-20) in Lawrence was a signature win. KU's much improved defense forced six Wildcat turnovers and contained freshman quarterback sensation Josh Freeman.

Missouri, meanwhile, enters its regular-season finale searching for a win after losing three straight games and four if its last five contests. The Tigers’ loss to Iowa State last Saturday was especially disheartening. The Big 12 Conference staff told MU coach Gary Pinkel a holding penalty that nullified a Tiger touchdown in the final seconds should not have been called.

“That's the hardest loss I've ever been a part of in all my life,” Pinkel said. “Obviously we were angered by it.”

But MU has regrouped and is ready for Kansas. KU has won its past three Border Showdowns and looking to become the first Jayhawk team to beat the Tigers four straight times since the 1930s. KU, which dominated MU (31-14) in 2004, will also be looking to win consecutive games in Columbia since 1943 and 1946.

"This is a great rivalry,” Mangino said. “There are a lot of people around here who are passionate about this game. ...And if you don't think it's a rivalry, the two schools can't even agree on the series record. Not long after I was hired, I was watching a basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse and an elderly man tapped me on the shoulder and introduced himself. He said, ‘Coach, there is only one game I want you to win for sure, Missouri.' I started laughing, but he didn't find it funny. It is a great rivalry and that is what college football is all about."

Mangino has great respect for the Tigers, who are ranked third in the Big 12 in scoring defense (18 points per game). On offense, Mizzou has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Sophomore Chase Daniel ranks No. 7 nationally with 258.3 yards of total offense per game, and has also passed for a whopping 22 TDs this season. Defensively, Missouri is led by senior linebackers Marcus Bacon (95 tackles) and Dedrick Harrington (87 tackles).

Pinkel knows KU has a lot of talent as well.

“We’re playing an outstanding team that runs the ball well and is playing well right now,” he said. “ Defensively, they're very good. They have a young quarterback (Kerry Meier) that I'm impressed with. We're going to see a team that's playing their best football right now. Their tailback (Jon Cornish) is a very good runner. He has a lot of balance and patience. He can accelerate when he needs to and break tackles. He certainly will present a test for us.”

Cornish will present a huge test for the Tigers, a team giving up 135.2 yards against the run (No. 60 nationally). After busting loose for a career-high 201 yards vs. K-State, Cornish needs just 112 yards to break Tony Sands’ all-time single-season rushing record (1,442 yards) at Kansas. Cornish should put on another dazzling show come Saturday, especially considering Mizzou opponents have totaled an average of 210 yards rushing the last five games.

And what does Cornish think of his place in KU history and possibly breaking Sands’ mark?

"I had never heard of him,” Cornish said. “Gale Sayers and John Riggins were the only ones that I had heard of.  Kansas has had a few good running backs in the past.  These two latest guys, Tony Sands and June Henley, were both great running backs in their own right and I am going to feel very privileged to join their ranks.”

If Meier and Cornish have big days and KU’s defensive pressure causes Daniel into costly interceptions and is able to force Tiger fumbles (Kansas is No. 3 in nation in recovered fumbles), then the Jayhawks could be celebrating their fourth straight win and culminating a stunning turnaround to their season.

Former KU All-Big Eight offensive lineman David Lawrence (football analyst on the Jayhawk Radio Network) can’t wait for the battle to begin. While it’s been 25 years since he last donned the crimson and blue against Missouri on Nov. 21, 1981 (KU won, 19-11, and clinched a berth in the Hall of Fame Bowl), Lawrence already has his game face on. He loves how Mangino has gotten his players to excel towards he end of the season and play their best football that very last game. KU won four of its last five games a year ago and beat ISU(24-21 in OT) in the regular-season finale, and then in 2004, Kansas beat MU, 31-14, in the last game to clinch a bowl berth.

“To me, I’ve always been a big fan of that,” Lawrence said of closing up with a win. “I think that should be your goal. That should be your defining moment. You want to win all of them, but it’s how you play on the last game that really defines you as a team. And (Mangino) has done that for the last three years.”

Lawrence, who teaches at South Junior High in Lawrence, definitely has a passion for this Border Showdown. He grins and says it’s “hard to be at a junior high where the colors are black and gold.” A player under former KU coach Don Fambrough, Lawrence views “Fam” as a father figure and has heard hundreds of his stories about the KU-MU series.

“I think he (Fambrough) uses that word ‘hate’ a lot,” Lawrence said. “I think when everything comes down to it in a quiet moment, I think we would all admit it’s not hate. I think that hate part kind of makes this whole thing happen, certainly we don’t have anything against people over there. ...We’re good friends with the radio people and have respect in many ways for the university. I think we use this rivalry thing, all the talk that you hear Fambrough talk about, that I talk about, we use it to have fun with, to have fans have fun with, to get players fired up about the game, which he’s done so for five, six decades now.”

Lawrence will always remember the first time he met Fambrough as a freshman in 1977, when “Fam” gave an inspirational speech on Nov. 18 the night before the last game of the year vs. MU. KU coach Bud Moore, who had replaced the fired Fambrough in 1975, invited back the former Jayhawk coach to talk to the team.

“I would testify that Fambrough got the win (24-21) that day, because Bud Moore had some good things, but he certainly couldn’t motivate anything like Fambrough,” Lawrence said. “When we heard that Friday night speech, we just left that meeting room and were ready to play. He just lit up the room. I’ll never forget it. It was a Friday night meeting at 6 o’clock. He came in and his vein popped out in his forehead, and the first thing he says is, ‘I’m not sure when I started hating those (guys).’ It kind of went from there.”

So it’s KU-MU on Saturday in the biggest game of the year for Kansas. It’s huge for recruiting. For bragging rights. And, of course, for the opportunity to make history and go to a bowl game two straight years. This much is certain: the Border Showdown will be filled with passion, emotion, intensity, and drama. Expect both teams to fly to the ball and make earth shaking hits that echo throughout Faurot Field and evoke memories from KU fans attending the game of punishing Jayhawks tacklers from yesteryear like Kurt Knoff, Mike Butler, Willie Pless and Kwame Lassiter.

Lawrence, for one, thinks Saturday will be a great day to be a Jayhawk. And oh, what a phenomenal win it would be for Kansas, Fambrough, and the entire Jayhawk nation. As Lawrence talks about the game, he feels the chills coming back from his playing career. His voice now rises with passion. Lawrence can’t hold back his emotion, not now, not after all these years growing up in Parsons, Kan., bleeding crimson and blue.

“I think they still have their best game out there,” said Lawrence, who was amazed at sophomore tackle Anthony Collins’ stellar play against K-State. “Obviously, Kerry’s red-zone mistakes (two interceptions and a fumble vs. KSU), we get those turned around, see improvement another week on defense, this team can really turn out a performance that we we’ll really be proud of, and I think a performance that would be very difficult for Missouri to defeat if that happens. We could have that day, and I think that’s what you wish for, because in football, you don’t get many chances. To finish and have a performance like that, it’s just amazing. You work on this 52 weeks a year, and yet, this one performance on this last game against your rival is going to determine who your are a lot.

“You think about that, it’s a pretty big game.”

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