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KU football momentarily relevant again on national stage

Kansas defensive lineman Tedarian Johnson is surrounded by teammates after recovering a fumble by TCU during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas defensive lineman Tedarian Johnson is surrounded by teammates after recovering a fumble by TCU during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

They may be small steps, but, at least for a few moments in the past week, Kansas University football was relevant once again.

Don't get me wrong, I fully recognize that there are plenty of die-hard KU football fans who live and die (and most often agonize) with the ups and downs of the program and show up ready to support their team win, lose or draw.

To that group, the Jayhawks are always relevant. But I'm talking relevant to college football. I'm talking relevant in the sense that something crosses one's brain that makes college football fans everywhere go, 'Huh, Kansas. Look at that.'

Last week, the Jayhawks had at least two of those moments. The first and most obvious came on Saturday, when KU put a heck of a scare into No. 5 TCU and threatened to single-handedly shake up the entire college football playoff standings, at least for a week. Truth be told, the Jayhawks did that even in a 34-30 loss to TCU, which entered last week ranked fourth in the ever-important college football playoff standings and, by some time tonight, will know whether that close call with Kansas hurt them or not.

The Jayhawks had plays that popped up on SportsCenter and other highlight shows. The names you know well were kicked around nationally for a couple of minutes and, although it went down as just another L, the effort regained Kansas some national respect.

I figured that respect would come and go pretty quickly but then I read this rundown of the playoff standings from the folks at FOX Sports, who not only gave TCU some credit for holding off Kansas (inspired team, on the road, Big 12 foe, all that jazz) but actually sounded off about the coaching search currently under way here. It caught me off guard and when I read it I had to read it a second time to make sure what I saw was right. But it was. There in the third comment under No. 5 Baylor was mention from former college football great Charles Davis — one of a 13-man FOX panel designed to track the playoff progress — gave a shout-out to interim head coach Clint Bowen for a job well done.

Davis: “(Baylor) will benefit from TCU’s struggle at Kansas (give Clint Bowen the job, Kansas; he deserves it), and the 'TCU’s ahead of Baylor in the poll, but Baylor beat TCU head-to-head!' discussion gets quelled, at least for this week. Baylor’s schedule is catching up as they finish with all Big 12 games, including hosting Oklahoma State Saturday night on FOX.”

It might be a small mention and it certainly is not KU impacting the national scene the way the next head coach (whoever that will be) and athletic director Sheahon Zenger want, but it's infinitely better than the blowouts of the Turner Gill and Charlie Weis days and something that, short as it may have been, KU fans can hold onto and take pride in.

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The Day After: A Senior Day heartbreaker vs. No. 5 TCU

Kansas players JaCorey Shepherd (24) and Cassius Sendish celebrate Shepherd's interception of TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas players JaCorey Shepherd (24) and Cassius Sendish celebrate Shepherd's interception of TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

The Kansas University football team did not win Saturday's thrilling showdown with No. 5 TCU at Memorial Stadium, but you'd never know that from the reaction that came after it.

Smiles radiated, pride beamed and the Jayhawks walked, talked, looked and sounded like a real football team again. There was even an opportunity for interim head coach to blast the officials for a couple of interesting calls, but, true to the form he's had throughout this whole ordeal, Bowen paused, thought carefully and chose to take the high road.

It was a good move. Even if he didn't agree with the calls that went against his team, whining about them in the postgame press conference would have done nothing — not for the game, not for his candidacy for the full-time job and not for the attitude he's instilled in his team since taking over. That attitude, of course, focuses on one mindset and one mindset only: Work hard, be tough and worry only about the things you can control.

That recipe almost enabled the Jayhawks to pull an all-time upset against a TCU team vying to stay in the conversation for the first ever college football playoff. The Horned Frogs won, and that's all that mattered, particularly on a day when other top-tier teams struggled or lost. But it could be argued that it was the Jayhawks who came away from this one having gained the most.

Never has the support behind Bowen been greater. Interest in the program is headed in the right direction again. Fans of KU football are no longer embarrassed to call themselves that out loud.

Bowen had a lot to do with that, but to give him all of the credit for it would be wrong. He's the captain of the ship, but the guys with the oars are some pretty big time players with a lot of heart and pride. And most of them are pretty good at football, too.

TCU found that out first-hand on Saturday and left Lawrence feeling fortunate to have survived.

Quick takeaway:

If it's football you want to talk about, Saturday's effort against a darn good TCU team proved that the Jayhawks might have a chance to be competitive in their two remaining games. That's something almost no one thought they could say a couple of weeks ago. But this team is tough, the offense is clicking and the defense is confident it can play with anybody. That alone should make for a fun couple of weeks. If it's the coaching search you're more interested in following, Saturday's game was relevant there, too. Bowen has proven he can coach. He took a group of guys who have done nothing but lose and made them winners. Maybe not on the scoreboard all that often, but they'll leave here with their heads up and remember this season much differently than it looked like they were going to. People realize that. People like that. And it's made a huge difference in the way a lot of people view Bowen as a candidate for the job.

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings throws over the TCU defense during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings throws over the TCU defense during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Three reasons to smile:

1 – If the way Jimmay Mundine competed out there did not earn your respect, the guy must have done something to your family. Seven catches, 137 yards, a touchdown and a part of what seemed like 40 missed tackles. All while having a heck of a time. Mundine was sensational in this game and has been a huge part of the reason for the solid play turned in by QB Michael Cummings. His effort against a Top 5 team on top of all he already has done this season should put him in the lead for first-team all-Big 12 honors at tight end.

Kansas tight end Jimmay Mundine tears up the sideline for a 67-yard-gain against TCU during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas tight end Jimmay Mundine tears up the sideline for a 67-yard-gain against TCU during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

2 – Forget about Michael Cummings' statistics, let's talk about the young man's toughness. I counted three times where he walked off the field looking like he might not be able to continue, yet, each time he trotted back out there and not only played but also threw darts. I could go on and on and on and on here, but you get the point. The kid's tough. He's a heck of a competitor. And he deserves a ton of respect even if he's not impressed.

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings breaks away from TCU defenders Davion Pierson (57) and Paul Dawson (47) during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings breaks away from TCU defenders Davion Pierson (57) and Paul Dawson (47) during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

3 – That's two weeks in a row that the Jayhawks have started fast and you can see what that's doing for their chances to be competitive. After brutal starts against Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks have finally stopped digging themselves huge holes that they can't crawl out of no matter how well they play. The improvement of the offense — credit Bowen, Cummings and Eric Kiesau for a big chunk of that — has played the biggest role here, but so has the general mindset of this team. For the first time in a long time, these guys truly believe they're good enough to win and are getting results and production that back that up.

Three reasons to sigh:

1 – KU's special teams cost them again. Against Oklahoma State, a Tyreek Hill kickoff return for a touchdown — and the decision to kick it to him — cost the Jayhawks a victory and on Saturday against TCU, punter Trevor Pardula's big leg got the Jayhawks into trouble for a change when Cameron Echols-Luper returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown that proved to be the difference. Those things will kill a lot of teams, but they're especially deadly for a team like KU that just doesn't have much margin for error.

TCU return man Cameron Echols-Luper runs back a punt for a touchdown and the lead as he is tailed by Kansas special teams player Trent Smiley during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

TCU return man Cameron Echols-Luper runs back a punt for a touchdown and the lead as he is tailed by Kansas special teams player Trent Smiley during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

2 – With all the talent returning in the backfield heading into this season, you would've never been able to convince me that the KU passing game would be more productive for this team. But it has been lately. KU averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against a tough TCU defense. Corey Avery (10 carries, 27 yards and a touchdown) had good moments and it would've been very interesting to see him get three more carries when the Jayhawks took over at the TCU 10 yard line late in the game down by seven. But hindsight's 20/20 and there's no guarantee Avery or anyone else would've got in either. The way Cummings and the pass catchers are playing — along with the improvement of the O-Line — the running game doesn't have to be great. But it does need to be a threat to keep the defense on its heels and 2.1 ypc won't cut it.

3 – It really is a shame that Saturday's loss was the home finale. With the new wave of support building behind Bowen and his boys it would be cool to see what the crowd would look like if the Jayhawks had one more home game this season.

Kansas defensive lineman Tedarian Johnson is surrounded by teammates after recovering a fumble by TCU during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas defensive lineman Tedarian Johnson is surrounded by teammates after recovering a fumble by TCU during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

One for the road:

KU's four-point loss to fifth-ranked TCU on Saturday...

• Moved the Jayhawks to 579-596-58 all-time. • Pushed TCU's lead in the all-time series lead 19-8-4. • Increased a streak of 15-straight losses to opponents ranked in the Top 25. • Prolonged a span of more than three years since the Jayhawks have won games in consecutive weeks. • Pushed the stretch of years it's been since KU topped TCU to 18. • Increased KU’s deficit to TCU in games played in Lawrence to 9-6. • Gave KU an even 3-3 mark at home in 2014.

Next up:

KU will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, this weekend for a match-up with the Sooners at 11 a.m. Saturday.

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Monday Rewind - TCU: Further examination of KU football’s offensive struggles

Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps (9) hands off to James Sims against TCU on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. KU lost, 27-17.

Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps (9) hands off to James Sims against TCU on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. KU lost, 27-17. by Richard Gwin

I've spent a lot of time these past three or four weeks asking various members of the Kansas University football team to explain what exactly is causing so many problems for the Jayhawks' offense.

From the head coach and quarterback to the pass catchers and starting and back-up offensive linemen, nearly a dozen different players have had an opportunity to pinpoint why the KU offense has struggled so badly.

Small problem: It doesn't seem like any of them can do it.

OK, so maybe that's actually more like a HUGE problem, but the one thing that keeps coming up no matter who I talk to is the word execution.

“We need to do a better job of executing,” one player will say.

“We're just not executing,” another will say in a somber tone.

“We have to execute the small things so we can get on a roll,” says yet another.

Yes, yes and yes.

So do it. I know that's a simple way of looking at things, but it's really the only thing you can say at this point. If it truly is just a matter of taking the right step here, picking up the right block there or making the right read at the right time elsewhere, do that. Don't just say you need to and then continue to go out there and misfire.

I'm not trying to make light of the situation, nor do I think going out there and executing while the defensive players are trying to kill you is easy. But it's time for KU's offensive players, many of whom have talent and ability, to get on the same page and stay there. Think about it. For two games, the quarterback was sharp, made good throws and ran the offense the way it's supposed to be run. And his receivers dropped balls. And here lately, just when the receivers (a few of them, at least) have figured out how to hang onto the ball, the quarterback has started to lose a little of his accuracy, which was supposed to be by far his biggest strength.

Trying to figure out plays that work with an offensive line that's struggling is hard enough. But doing it without knowing whether your quarterback and receivers will be on the same page from play to play is a nightmare. And that's a huge reason for the Jayhawks' offensive struggles of late.

To demonstrate this, let's look at back-to-back plays in the third quarter of Saturday's game.

On first-and-10 from the TCU 27 yard line, one play after the Horned Frogs gave KU life by muffing a punt, the Jayhawks, who trailed 24-10, took to the air for one of the day's few throws that traveled down the field and looked bad in doing it. As tight end Jimmay Mundine cut to the inside down the seam, quarterback Jake Heaps threw behind him, low and to the outside.

When I asked Heaps about the throw after the game, he said it was 100 percent on him and then went on to talk about working as hard as he could to make every play succeed and get this offense going. On the very next play, he proved that was possible, as he lobbed a nice ball to Mundine on a corner route near the 5 yard line and Mundine rose up, snatched it out of the air like a man possessed and then stomped into the end zone. It was as good a ball as Heaps had thrown all day and maybe as good as the Jayhawks had looked in their down-the-field passing game all year.

The point is this: On one play, they looked awful, out of sync and in complete disarray. On the very next, they looked like a competent offense, like the Jake Heaps and Jimmay Mundine many expected to see all season.

So, what gives?

The players and coaches have said that inexperience is not an excuse. By now, they say, these guys have all been out there enough to be able to step up when their numbers are called. In addition, they insist that they do execute all the time during practice and they believe if they can do it in practice they should be able to and expected to do it during games on Saturdays. They're right.

Frustrated fans have tossed out all kinds of solutions for this offensive mess, some of which make sense and some of which are just not possible, at least not during the middle of the season.

I've spent my fair share of time trying to analyze what's happening here, too, and the only thing I can think of that can actually happen is that these guys can step up and become gamers.

Sounds easy, but it's really not. Either you are or you aren't. James Sims is a gamer. Justin McCay may not be. The rest are probably somewhere in between. But it's time to find out who falls where.

With seven games left and the defense and special teams playing at a high level, this season is not a lost cause. KU's not going bowling, but only a small percentage of KU fans actually thought that was a possibility before the season began anyway, so that's not breaking news. There is time, though, to win a couple more games, pick up some momentum heading into Year 3 of the Charlie Weis era and give these fans something worth watching when the KU offense is on the field. Todd Reesing to Dezmon Briscoe it will not be. But it doesn't have to be the 2005 KU offense either. Remember them? The group that struggled to score and sustain drives week after week while the defense played out of its mind and plenty well enough to win. (I'm specifically thinking of that 19-3 loss to Oklahoma at Arrowhead Stadium right now). That's kind of what we have going right now and the only guys that can do anything about it know who they are.

This is the roster for 2013. There is no free agency, there are no out-of-work veterans waiting for a phone call at home. This is it. So this is the group that has to get it done.

If that means they need to execute more or better or more consistently, then do it.

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Monday Rewind: TCU

Kansas receiver Andrew Turzilli pulls in a deep pass as TCU cornerback Jason Verrett dives in for the tackle during the third quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas receiver Andrew Turzilli pulls in a deep pass as TCU cornerback Jason Verrett dives in for the tackle during the third quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Before we look back at what went right and what went wrong during last Saturday’s 20-6 loss to TCU, let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: The 15-yard, personal foul penalty for “hitting a defenseless receiver” called on KU safety Bradley McDougald midway through the fourth quarter was quite possibly the worst call I’ve ever seen in my football-viewing life.

The blown call did nothing to impact the outcome of the game and was rather harmless in the big picture, but I don’t think it’s right for that kind of blip to slide by without so much as a mention. Credit the Jayhawks and head coach Charlie Weis for not publicly griping about it after the game. That wouldn’t have accomplished anything and, worse, would’ve made them look like whiners.

Weis made it very clear that his is not a team of whiners when he talked about his displeasure with the way quarterback Dayne Crist came to the sideline with his palms up after some confusion in the passing game. “We don’t do that here,” Weis said simply. And they don’t whine about officiating either.

Their restraint is part of the reason I chose to bring it up here. That official should at least be forced to miss some Big 12 games and work at a lower level for the next couple of weeks. Inexcusable. I’m not sure what McDougald is supposed to do there. Let the guy land before he hits him? That’s not football.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by John Young

OK, moving on...

Prior to the TCU game I heard a lot of people say they felt like this would or could be the “Georgia Tech game” like KU had in 2010 after losing at home to North Dakota State.

It wasn’t, of course, but even if the Jayhawks had pulled off the upset, I don’t think it would’ve been like the Georgia Tech game at all. For starters, that one came after one of the most embarrassing losses in program and Big 12 history. Losing to Rice was a tough beat, but it was nothing like losing to an FCS team, 6-3, in a coach’s debut. Beyond that, the Georgia Tech game was the peak of the Turner Gill era at Kansas. Things only got worse — nearly every week — from then on out, and I don’t get the sense that the peak of the Weis era will come at any point during the 2012 season, let alone three weeks into it.

To me, it seems as if this team will continue to improve dramatically — week to week, game to game, year to year — and that this year’s loss to TCU, many months from now, will be looked back on as the one where everything started to click.

After the game, the players and coaches who were made available for interviews clearly were upset that they had lost the game. But it wasn’t the kind of anger that comes out of embarrassment, frustration or failure. It was the kind of anger that comes from believing you should’ve won and these guys most certainly believed that. Had the offense just been a little sharper, they might have pulled it off.

That mentality is as good a sign as any that Weis truly has changed the losing culture that existed here. The results might not be showing it yet, but seeing that these guys genuinely believe they can and should win games might mean more to the big picture than a couple of early victories.

So now the Jayhawks move on to Northern Illinois. They’re a 1-2 team and they’re headed on the road this week, but their confidence is back and they’re starting to look like many of us expected a Charlie Weis team to look. If they can just get the offense to reach that point, too, it should be fun to watch this group play the rest of the way — win or lose.

As Weis said Sunday night: "So, now we've got 'em playing hard the whole game, now we just gotta play better."

Quickly, here were three things I really liked about the TCU game, all of which I think will pay off big-time for the Jayhawks down the road:

  1. It was good to see Tony Pierson involved in the passing game. The guy’s a weapon and finding creative ways to maximize his play-making ability should be a priority for the Jayhawks. Here’s guessing we’ll see new wrinkles involving Pierson just about every week from here on out.

  2. It also was nice to see Andrew Turzilli really be a factor out there. The kid has some serious skills and now, with his first start and a 100-yard game fresh in his mind, maybe he’ll have the confidence to take his game up a notch or two.

  3. Former Notre Dame linebacker Anthony McDonald made a difference. Sure, he was a little rusty to start out, and, yeah, he might not be the fastest guy on the field, but he’ll hit you and his experience really is an upgrade for this young group of linebackers. McDonald played more than most expected and finished with six tackles, one fumble recovery and a huge smile. More importantly, he finished relatively healthy and should be ready for an even bigger game this Saturday.

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Three & Out with TCU…

• Kansas Jayhawks (1-1) vs. No. 16 TCU Horned Frogs (1-0) •
11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS

Opening Las Vegas Line: TCU -26.5
Current Las Vegas Line: TCU -21

Three and out, with TCU...

1st Down
The Horned Frogs own the nation’s longest current winning streak at nine in a row. TCU also has won 24 consecutive conference games (albeit in a different conference), which also is tops in the country.

The Frogs have won 17 of their last 19 road games and won their last 12 road contests in the Mountain West, including a 36-35 victory at Boise State last season which snapped the Broncos’ 35-game home winning streak.

TCU is the only school in the nation to win at least 11 games in six of the last seven seasons, one of just four programs (Alabama, Boise State and Oregon) to finish in the top 15 of both the Associated Press and USA Today polls during the last four seasons, and one of just three schools (Florida and Utah) to win at least six bowl games in the last seven seasons.

2nd Down
TCU is 3-1-1 when playing its first game in a new conference.

According to the school’s records, TCU defeated Oklahoma A&M, 7-6, on Oct. 6, 1923, in its first game as a member of the Southwest Conference, knocked off Houston, 34-17, on Sept. 29, 2001 in its first ever Conference-USA game and upended Utah, 23-20 in overtime, in its first game in the Mountain West on Sept. 15, 2005.

TCU’s only loss in a conference debut came in 1996, when New Mexico spoiled TCU’s WAC debut, 27-7. As for the tie, TCU and Texas A&M played a scoreless game during the Frogs first TIAA conference contest.

3rd Down
During its season-opening victory against Grambling State last week, TCU played 13 true freshman and several other red-shirt freshmen and sophomores. Although it’s clear that Patterson trusts them enough to put them out there, the TCU coach acknowledges that it’s still an uneasy feeling.

“Freshmen in their first game are always scared to death and it’s hard for them to focus on the task at hand,” Patterson said. “When you play (13) true freshmen, every day’s a new experience right now. Most people don’t want to play three of them. So we’ve just really gotta keep working on attention to detail and keep getting better at what we do.”

Patterson conjured up an old quote from legendary hoops coach John Wooden, of all people, to express how he thought his young guys played in the opener.

“There’s an old saying in the John Wooden book that says, ‘You need to be quick but you don’t need to look like you’re in a hurry,’” Patterson said. “And a lot of our younger players looked like they were in a hurry.”

One of TCU’s most impressive freshman was punt returner Deante’ Gray, who was named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week. Gray set a TCU single-game punt return record with 160 yards on five attempts. He ripped off a 70-yard touchdown on his first collegiate touch and also had a 61-yard punt return in the second half.

Punt
TCU holds a 16-8-4 all-time advantage in the series vs. Kansas, which dates back to 1942. The Frogs are 9-6 all-time in Lawrence and 7-2-2 against the Jayhawks in Fort Worth, Texas.

TCU and Kansas are meeting for the first time on the gridiron since a 17-10 KU victory in Lawrence in 1997, the year before Gary Patterson arrived at TCU as defensive coordinator.

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