How could it not be? More so than any other loss, the 36-35 setback was the gold standard by which KU’s 2006 late-game failings were measured. A paper-thin Jayhawk squad became the poster children for what happens when a young, inexperienced team trying to find its way finds itself trying to protect an 18-point lead against a pass-happy opponent who had been in that situation before.
Yes, KU had a number of late-game collapses last year, but Baylor was different. Baylor was, after all, Baylor.
The Jayhawks made sure that Saturday afternoon’s rain-soaked 58-10 rematch was not going to be a repeat.
KU’s offense sputtered its way to a 10-3 lead at the end of the first quarter but scored 21 unanswered points in the second to take a 31-3 lead into halftime. Thanks to a smothering Kansas defense, Baylor’s only score of the second half was a 97-yard kickoff return by David Gettis, who also stars on the Bears track team. Four Jayhawks intercepted passes from three different Baylor quarterbacks.
“We weren’t having it this year,” DB Justin Thornton said. “Last year, we had a rough game. Last year, in the fourth quarter, it was 35-17 with 10 minutes left. We just weren’t having it this year.”
KU head coach Mark Mangino said the difference between this year and last is simple: “We’re just a better football team in all areas. We’re better physically; we’re better assignment-wise; we’re a little more mature. We’re mentally tougher than a year ago.”
He said his players didn’t need reminding of what happened last season. “The kids know, they understand, we discussed it briefly. This football team is much better than a year ago.”
It’s hard to argue. Kansas is the lone remaining undefeated team in the Big XII at 6-0 and leads the Big XII North at 2-0.
DT James McClinton said that the difference between the ’06 Jayhawks and the ’07 version is simple but hard to comprehend at the same time.
“(KU defensive coordinator Bill Young) showed me the (Baylor) game film and I said, ‘Man, this was us lastyear?’ I mean, lack of communication, quarterback running out of the pocket, picking up long third down conversions and stuff.”
It truly is a night-and-day comparison, particularly when it comes to KU’s pass defense, which finished 119th in the nation last season. This season, they’re sixth, giving up just 160 yards per game. That’s keeping company with teams like Ohio State, LSU and South Carolina.
“We’re just more experienced and more confident. We’re more assignment sound, but I think that experience helps us a lot,” Thornton explained.
Another way this Jayhawk team is different is their focus and their businesslike approach. McClinton said that there was some thought given to last year’s Baylor loss, but it doesn’t sound like anyone lost any sleep over it.
“We just got off a big win and we took care of business,” he said.
It did, however, serve as a reminder to this year’s squad that anything can happen. “We didn’t relax. They came out in the second half, and I said, ‘We still got work to do. This game is not over with.’ They were capable of coming back, especially the way their offense is. Keep pushing that pressure. We came out with the mentality, it’s still zero-zero. We’ve still got work to do. Let’s go.”
Add this strong conference win to the laundry list of differences between the 2006 Jayhawk team and this year’s more seasoned group that, so far, has left nothing to chance. They’ve beaten five overmatched opponents very soundly and grabbed a close-but-convincing road win against a good conference opponent-slash-instate rival.
Another difference is that no one had even given it a second thought that KU has six wins and is now bowl eligible for the third year in a row. Six wins used to be cause for celebration around Lawrence.
Mangino remembered, “We won six games last year and they told us we were bowl eligible. You know where we spent the holidays? At home. That’s just propaganda. If you really want to guarantee a bowl, you’ve got to win more than six.”
Mangino said his team had aspirations far beyond just getting six wins this season. “The kids don’t care (about becoming bowl eligible). They’ve set their sights so high, I don’t think it even entered their minds. I’ll tell you, until you brought it up, I hadn’t even thought of it.”
How high are the Jayhawks sights set? Suffice to say James McClinton almost acted like “bowl eligible” was fightin’ words.
“Bowl eligible. We don’t just want to be bowl eligible; we want to win the Big XII,” McClinton echoed. “We won’t sit back and relax. We still got work to do.”
That work continues next week against Big XII North foe Colorado, another measuring stick game for the Jayhawks which will be televised on ESPN. Strange things happen in Boulder when KU comes to town, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the herbal therapy that is so popular among Buffalo students and fans.
A win next week will certainly keep KU’s march to national respectability going, and if this season’s shown us anything, it’s shown us that this Kansas team doesn’t put a lot of stock in the past. It’s all about the present and what looks to be a bright future.