Flash forward to this Saturday at 2:30 p.m., when KU again hosts the Cyclones in the Jayhawks’ last home game. This time, the game is on ABC. And this time, Kansas is already bowl-eligible. At 10-0, the ‘Hawks have much higher goals in mind. They want a Big 12 north crown, a conference championship, and a berth in the national championship game.
With No. 2 Oregon losing to Arizona (34-24) Thursday night, Kansas (No. 3 in Bowl Championship Series standings) is now in position to leap to No. 2 in the BCS.
Of course, KU must beat Iowa State on Senior Day to keep its national championship dreams alive. After losing five straight games, the Cyclones (3-8, 2-5) have won their last two contests, including a thrilling 31-28 victory over Colorado last week. ISU equaled its biggest comeback in school history after being down 21-0 at halftime.
The Cyclones have some headline players in quarterback Bret Meyer and receivers Todd Blythe and R.J. Sumrall. Standout seniors Meyer and Blythe will be playing the last game of their college careers against Kansas. Meyer ranks third among active NCAA quarterbacks in total offense (10, 310 yards), and is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and total yards. Blythe, who is tied for the team lead in receptions with 50 (along with junior Sumrall), holds the Cyclones record for career catches (174), receiving yards (1,074) and touchdown catches (31).
KU head coach Mark Mangino knows it won’t be easy this Saturday with Iowa State coming off two straight victories.
“You can see the progress they are making under their new head coach Gene Chizik,” Mangino said. “They are a sound fundamental football team. They have good, tough kids. They have some playmakers in Brett Meyer, Todd Blythe and R.J. Sumrall. They have a couple of running backs that they’ve been using and Alexander Robinson (team-high 4.2 yards per carry) has been emerging.”
“They’re not making a lot of mistakes,” Mangino added. “They are playing aggressive football. They are much, much improved from the beginning of the season. That’s what you look for when you are a new head coach and that’s something they are doing.”
Kansas isn’t making many mistakes, either, a primary reason the Jayhawks are unbeaten and the feel-good story of the year in college football. The ‘Hawks are first in the nation in turnover margin (+2.0), fewest penalties per game (3.70) and fewest penalty yards per game (31.40). KU (sophomore quarterback Todd Reesing) has only had four passes intercepted, tied for second fewest in the country.
“We have a bunch of really smart guys that understand the fundamentals of football,” said junior defensive end John Larsen. “Offense has done an excellent job of taking care of the ball. Todd’s gone a hundred-and-some-odd passes (school-record 179 passes) without an interception and that’s absolutely great. Our defense being able to sit on the sideline, catch our breath, be able to make adjustments or whatever we need to do really makes our job easier when we can get breathers and win the turnover margin.”
KU’s matchup against Iowa State marks the last home game for 13 Jayhawk seniors. These players have paid their dues, battled each day in practice, and are now reaping the benefits of their hard work. For fifth-year senior Derek Fine, Kansas football has certainly come a long way since he arrived at KU in 2003.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of respect shown our way from the beginning, “Fine said. “That was fine. Respect is something that’s earned, not given. That’s something we’ve done, we’ve just worked and worked to gain respect from people, to let people know we’re doing our job and trying to make this program better.
“It’s worked out this year.”
Indeed, it’s been a very memorable and magical season. A win over ISU would give KU its best start in school history. And heck, Fine’s roommate Reesing is even being mentioned as a Heisman candidate.
“If they want to talk about it, then that is great,” Reesing said. “To even be mentioned for an award like that is unbelievable. I’m not worried about it, because all I can do is get ready for this next game and play as best I can. If things like that happen at the end of the season, then that would be tremendous and unbelievable, but I’m not really worried about awards right now.”
All Reesing and the Jayhawks care about is Iowa State. Fine can’t wait until kickoff and have one last chance of playing with his teammates at Memorial Stadium and taking one more step to winning a Big 12 title and national championship.
It’s his final hurrah, his own shining moment.
“I’m really excited to just play and have my family be part of that,” he said. “It will be something I’ll remember forever. It will be a memory I’ll take with me until I pass. You never want to leave your senior year on a loss. It would mean the world to me (to win).”