Lance Leipold is right that 2021 win over Texas “doesn’t matter” — except in one respect
photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley
Six hundred eighty-one days later, Kansas coach Lance Leipold is tired of talking about his first-year Jayhawks’ landmark upset win over Texas two seasons ago.
“Old news,” Leipold said tersely Monday. “Doesn’t matter. Both teams are significantly better. Honestly, it’s so far in the past, we got to keep moving.”
Really, he may have already been getting fatigued by the time his second match with the Longhorns rolled around last November: “(I don’t think about it) as much as, maybe, others,” he said then — though he noted the previous game provided a jumping-off point for future improvement.
Either way, he did plenty to dissuade future inquiries into the matter with the second half of his response Monday: “I hope it’s the last time I have to answer that question this week, honestly, I do. I really want to focus on our team now and where we’re going because that’s what’s important.”
It’s easy to understand why he would have that mindset. The Jayhawks stand light-years away from where they were when Leipold and company first trekked down to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Nov. 13, 2021. The team has since won 10 games since that upset after winning nine under its last two coaches combined. It has produced a first bowl appearance in 14 seasons, the first back-to-back 4-0 starts in 108 and loads more “first … in” stats I could conjure but mercifully will not.
But the continued significance of that 2021 victory, to my eye, can be found in the box score. KU scored eight touchdowns in the 57-56 win. Four of the five players involved in those scores — not to mention two-point-conversion hero Jared Casey — remain on the roster two years later, many in key leadership roles.
Jalon Daniels, then a sophomore third-stringer who had been planning to redshirt, played out the rest of the year, set the conference aflame when he was healthy in 2022 and was the preseason Big 12 Conference offensive player of the year this season. Devin Neal, then a freshman who scored thrice against the Longhorns, wasn’t exactly wide-eyed at the time, but has since blossomed into another face of the program, the hometown kid helping revive the moribund Jayhawks, and one of the best backs in the country all the while.
Mason Fairchild, now a team captain like Daniels, had just 18 career catches for no touchdowns prior to that day and has 43 with six scores since. And Cobee Bryant, another freshman who starred in that game, was already locking down opposing receivers in 2023 before he earned Big 12 defensive player of the week honors last weekend against BYU.
And there are plenty of other players — tight ends Casey, then a walk-on fullback, and Trevor Kardell; center Mike Novitsky; safeties OJ Burroughs and Kenny Logan Jr.; wide receiver Lawrence Arnold; linebacker Rich Miller; and many more — who have become cornerstones of Leipold’s rebuild, and who got their names on the stat sheet that fateful day in Austin, Texas.
You have to think that to some extent, that game is “old news” for these players, too.
“I ain’t got too much to say about Austin,” Bryant had said Saturday, asked about the challenge ahead. “It’s just a big-time week, everybody need to lock in. We say we owe them something … It’s a statement week, like a championship game, that’s how we say it in the locker room.”
However, all of these players should be able to approach an otherwise daunting trip to one of the meccas of college football with added confidence, simply because they’ve won there before. Leipold noted later in his press conference that the team practiced indoors with added crowd noise Monday, but that most of the back seven in particular had already had the experience of playing in a pumped-up, capacious stadium like DKR (which seats more than 100,000).
That experience worked out well for them. And that was they were much worse: the youngest team in Power 5 football, hadn’t won a conference game in 18 tries, hadn’t won a Football Bowl Subdivision game in 21 tries, hadn’t won a road conference game in 13 years, and so on. If they could do it then, why not now, as a ranked team with numerous national accolades?
Of course, as Leipold alluded to, Texas has gotten much better too. The 2021 Longhorns ended up finishing 5-7 in Steve Sarkisian’s first year, which was tied for their worst single-season record since 1997. Last year, though, led by its running game, Texas shredded resurgent KU 55-14 in Lawrence in Daniels’ first game back from a shoulder injury. After taking an immense step forward in 2022, Texas, led by players like quarterback Quinn Ewers, tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders and linebacker Jaylan Ford, is now a contender for the national title and is already the No. 3 team in the country with a win over Alabama under its belt.
Sarkisian said at his own press conference Monday that his team has come a long way and doesn’t need to use the 2021 result as motivation: “To try to make our guys feel bad for losing a game two years ago that sucked for everybody,” he said, “I don’t know what benefit that is.” But he also said — just as his counterpart Leipold has — that it set the Longhorns on the right path.
“In a weird way, I’m kind of glad it happened,” Sarkisian said. “Because it exposed some warts in our program that needed to get removed. And if we hadn’t removed those warts we might not be where we are today in our program.
“Sometimes not all storms come to cause issues in your life. Some storms come to clear the path.”
Viewed through this lens, the 2021 game between Kansas and Texas is exactly what brought Kansas and Texas to where they are now. Retrospectively, it clearly shaped the course of rebuilding projects for a pair of first-year coaches. It also matters now, specifically, because of the numerous Jayhawks who saw what it was like at KU before Nov. 13, 2021, before that storm rolled on through, and still managed to win on that day.
photo by: AP Photo/Chuck Burton
photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World photo
photo by: AP Photo/Chuck Burton
photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel