Border War Win Huge For Jayhawks

Take the Kansas football team off life support. Rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Saturday afternoon's 40-37 last-minute win over arch rival Missouri couldn't have come at a better time for the Jayhawks. It bumped the Jayhawks' record to 7-5. The victory will make the next few days waiting for that Insight Bowl invitation a lot more tolerable. Then there's that whole Civil War, Quantrill, burning-and-raping-and-killing-innocent-people thing.

And anyone who doesn't enjoy watching 40,000 Missouri fans walk silently out of Arrowhead Stadium to return to their meth labs, walnut bowls and porn shops, disappointed, just doesn't know funny.

But maybe the most enjoyable aspect of the win was that it was clear how much it meant to a coach and team who had had more than their share of bad breaks and found themselves on the short end of the stick more often than not this season.

A smiling KU coach Mark Mangino was succinct in his assessment of the win.

“It's  probably the guttiest, most courageous performance we've had by our football team since I've been the head football coach,” he said.

Almost from the opening kickoff of the season, the 2008 Jayhawks were the polar opposite of the 2007 crew. Last season's squad stayed relatively-injury free, and all the cosmic tumblers fell into place en route to a 12-1 record, including an Orange Bowl win, and a top 10 ranking.

During the off-season, these Jayhawks looked forward to matching up with Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. They had a boatload of starters back on both sides of the ball and wanted to prove the naysayers wrong. The Jayhawks wanted to banish the word “fluke” from those critics' vocabularies.

It didn't take long for the injury bug and a lack of depth to take their toll. Those much-anticipated match-ups with the Big 12's big boys ended up being blowouts. With each starter that went down – Dexton Fields, Caleb Blakesley, Darrell Stuckey – expectations of an eight- or nine-win season went  with them.

“This year's been a huge fight, and a lot of guys battled little dings,” acknowledged linebacker Mike Rivera.

Mangino said, “If I had to discuss injuries today, a roll of toilet paper wouldn't be long enough for all the names and injuries that would be on it.”

“We are a very banged-up team. We're beat up. We had some guys limping around for two weeks. How some of them played today, the only way I can describe it is courage, because there were some kids that I didn't think were going to be able to play.”

Even as late as Saturday, the Jayhawks were staring a 6-6 record squarely in the face with just 1:45 left  against the #12-ranked MU Tigers. A minute and 18 seconds later, quarterback Todd Reesing connected with receiver Kerry Meier (who else?) for the game-winning score. By the way, Meier, who made a school record 14 catches at his receiver spot Saturday, spent most of the week practicing at quarterback because Reesing couldn't raise his arm above his shoulder on Monday.

Nothing will make up for a season which the Jayhawks approached with the idea of further establishing themselves among college football's best. Saturday's dramatic win, however, will go a long way toward taking that bad taste out of the Jayhawks' beaks.

Rivera said he and his teammates never felt sorry for themselves. They just kept – dare I say it? – kept sawing wood.

“We just kept fighting every week. Getting this win is huge for our team and the morale. It's something we really wanted and I'm proud we went out there today and won that game,” he said.

Mangino expressed his gratitude and pride in his entire team and talked about the pride he has in his M*A*S*H* unit of a football team.

“There aren't words that I can really use with my limited vocabulary to describe the feeling I have for all of our players, but especially the kids who really had to fight through the last month of the season, the last couple weeks,” he said. “It was impressive to watch those kids. I'm proud to be associated with them. You're just so glad because they showed courage, because they've given everything they have to the program. They were rewarded today.”

So while the team's hopes of another double-digit win season or a conference championship may have fallen by the wayside early, the Jayhawks never lost sight of a winning season and a second consecutive bowl trip – the first time KU has ever played in consecutive post-seasons. That focus and determination made Saturday's victory possible. Maybe seeing that dedication pay off made it just a little sweeter, too.

“One of the shortest-term goals you have is to have a winning season, and we wanted to have a winning season,” Mangino said. “We don't talk about ones that got away. What we always say here at Kansas, we're focused on the present, always mindful of the future. At least we finished on a strong note, and we'll get ready to play in a bowl game. Our players are excited about that. Let's go get another win.”

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