Third-string quarterback Ballard guides KU rally, but Jayhawks fall 16-13 to Texas Tech

Kansas quarterback Cole Ballard (15) is brought down while trudging toward the end zone during the fourth quarter on Saturday Nov. 11, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Krug

The quarterback injury saga that has cast a shadow over a successful Kansas football season took another dramatic turn Saturday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Sixth-year senior Jason Bean took a hard hit plunging ahead on a third-down quarterback draw on the penultimate play of the first quarter against Texas Tech, and suffered what head coach Lance Leipold called a head injury. Bean tried to return briefly, only to get stopped on a fourth-down run and exit for the remainder of the game.

From then on, with Jalon Daniels still out due to back tightness for the sixth straight game, it was freshman walk-on Cole Ballard’s show.

“(He did) just about what I thought he’d do: compete his tail off, and he wouldn’t flinch, and he’ll give you everything he has,” Leipold said. “I don’t think he ever had that deer-in-the-headlight look about him where the moment was too big. That locker room really likes Cole Ballard and they have for a long time. It’s his makeup, it’s in his DNA, and he’s going to be a fine player here.”

The son of Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard, who had seen just a few snaps of collegiate action in the Missouri State and Iowa State games, bounced back from a third-quarter interception, made big throws and fought for every yard he needed to in the fourth quarter as KU tried to rally from a 13-0 deficit. He wasn’t always playing with a full complement of weapons, either, as key players like Luke Grimm and Mason Fairchild got banged up as the game went on.

But with the Jayhawks down 13-10, a Devin Neal direct-snap pass on a third-and-goal trick play fell short, KU settled for a field goal, and the Red Raiders marched down the field in 19 seconds for an immediate game-winning kick from Gino Garcia to claim the 16-13 victory in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks let tailback Tahj Brooks (33 carries, 133 yards and a score) run all over them in the opening quarter as the Red Raiders built a quick 10-0 lead, but gradually tightened up over the course of the game to keep Texas Tech out of the end zone.

Then Texas Tech quarterback Behren Morton completed passes to Jerand Bradley for 16 yards, Myles Price for 14 and — in the decisive moment — Bradley for another 33 down the right sideline to set up the final kick.

Morton finished 19-for-25 for 175 yards and an interception — snagged by OJ Burroughs at the goal line, so that Ballard started his first full drive at his own 1-yard line.

Ballard went 9-for-20 for 124 yards on the day and picked up a couple key first downs with his legs.

“You dream about this your whole life, and just for those guys to have the confidence to put me in there,” Ballard said, “and it’s something that not a lot of guys get the opportunity to do, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Added Neal: “The weird thing about it is, we all kind of expected it from him. And that’s just kind of our standard as a team. It doesn’t matter who goes out there, I’ve said it plenty of times. He was super calm, and he’s cold as ice out there.”

His pick, his principal error on the night, came on a slight underthrow looking for Jared Casey down the middle of the field; Dadrion Taylor-Demerson wrestled the ball away, and that set up a Garcia field goal to make it 13-0.

Both teams had a tough time punching it into the end zone. Ballard saw his opening drive go 18 plays, 93 yards and nearly nine minutes but come up empty when Daniel Hishaw Jr. got denied on back-to-back dives out of the pistol formation. Later, at the start of the fourth quarter, Morton connected deep with Bradley over Mello Dotson, but a sack by Dotson on a cornerback blitz pushed the Red Raiders to the edge of field goal range. KU gambled by declining a holding call on third down, and Garcia promptly missed from 48 yards.

KU broke the ice when, at the start of the fourth quarter, after a sack by Taylor-Demerson put the Jayhawks behind the chains, Neal took an option pitch from Ballard and made a well-timed cut to set himself up for a 60-yard touchdown run.

Jereme Robinson blew up a Brooks carry on the ensuing drive to force a quick punt.

Lawrence Arnold, who made massive plays the prior two weeks, found a hole in the defense once again for a 31-yard reception. Hard running from Neal and a big gain by Ballard on a read option got KU in a goal-to-go situation, but the Jayhawks stalled again and settled for a chip-shot field goal to cut the deficit in half with just 4:44 to go.

“That’s a physical, downhill defense,” Leipold said. “The closer it is, sometimes as you watch in football, some days it’s difficult.”

KU encountered that difficulty again, in the dying seconds, after Ballard found Quentin Skinner for a pair of crucial first downs and Fairchild drew a pass-interference flag on Brenden Jordan. The Jayhawks got to third-and-goal from the 3 but went for the Neal trick play. The two receiving options, Casey and Torry Locklin, were both covered.

“We worked it all week, and we have complementary plays, that’s what we do,” Neal said. “We called it, they just played good defense on it, they read it and that was that.”

KU had played for overtime but didn’t make it to the extra period.

Neal finished with 137 yards and a touchdown on the ground, as he passed John Riggins, Gale Sayers and Clark Green on the Jayhawks’ all-time rushing list.

KU (7-3, 4-3 Big 12 Conference) will host Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown next Saturday for its home finale.

How they scored

First quarter

10:18 — Tahj Brooks 5-yard run. Gino Garcia PAT is good. Seven plays, 50 yards, 2:54 TOP. Texas Tech 7, Kansas 0.

3:29 — Gino Garcia 32-yard field goal is good. 15 plays, 42 yards, 5:22 TOP. Texas Tech 10, Kansas 0.

Third quarter

2:56 — Garcia 31-yard field goal. Eight plays, 22 yards, 3:42 TOP. Texas Tech 13, Kansas 0.

Fourth quarter

12:12 — Devin Neal 60-yard run. Seth Keller PAT is good. Four plays, 70 yards, 1:42 TOP. Texas Tech 13, Kansas 7.

4:46 — Keller 24-yard field goal is good. 11 plays, 71 yards, 4:57 TOP. Texas Tech 13, Kansas 10.

0:30 — Keller 22-yard field goal is good. 14 plays, 77 yards, 1:55 TOP. Kansas 13, Texas Tech 13.

0:03 — Garcia 30-yard field goal is good. Four plays, 63 yards, 00:26 TOP. Texas Tech 16, Kansas 13.

Game Stats

Texas Tech 10 0 3 3 – 16

Kansas 0 0 0 13 – 13

Texas Tech | Kansas

First downs 21 | 18

Rushing yards 136 | 207

Passing yards 287 | 258

Total offense 312 | 344

Fumbles lost 0 | 0

Interceptions 1 | 1

Penalties-yards 4-45 | 4-31

Individual Stats

Rushing: Texas Tech – Brooks 33-133; Valdez 4-14; Morton 7-(-14); Kansas – Neal 19-137; Hishaw 13-35; Ballard 10-20; Bean 3-15.

Passing: Texas Tech – Morton 19-25, 176; Kansas – Ballard 9-20, 124; Bean 1-4, 13; Neal 0-1.

Receiving: Texas Tech — Price 5-29; Bradley 4-91; Eakin 3-29; McCray 2-(-2); Sparkman 1-8; Cupp 1-8; Brooks 1-6; White 1-5; Brown 1-2; Kansas — Arnold 2-44; Skinner 2-32; Fairchild 2-20; Neal 2-12; Locklin 1-25; Emilien 1-4.


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