In the rapid rise of Kansas football under Lance Leipold, the Jayhawks have crossed another threshold. They’ve become good enough to disappoint.
Used to be, an outcome like Texas Tech’s 16-13 victory would serve as building-block consolation for the Jayhawks. Hey, they played a Big 12 opponent and weren’t blown out.
Instead, fans got a little peeved when KU got the ball with 28 seconds remaining before halftime and didn’t attempt to score. And they were stunned to see Tech travel 63 yards in the final 26 seconds to kick the game-winning field goal.
These are the emotions of fans who expect their team to win, and that’s a new place for Kansas created by a wave of Leipold’s magic wand. Each year a dash of hope, starting with the victory over Texas in 2021, followed by a bowl season.
This team is climbing even higher, bringing a 7-2 record and national rankings into a contest against a Texas Tech team that stood 4-5 and desperately needing a victory as an underdog to reach bowl eligibility.
The Red Raiders got it done because they dominated the first six minutes (10-0 lead) and the final few seconds. Doesn’t seem like that should have been enough for favorite son Patrick Mahomes and the family, watching from the visiting athletic director’s suite, to go home happy.
But they did, and Leipold insists there’s an important message for the sad-faced Jayhawks: No short cuts.
“This place has been starving for (success) for so long, I don’t know if we’ve gotten all the steps in line,” he said. “We want to talk about things that aren’t even possible yet. We want to make sure we’re A-B-C-D all the way through. We want to go A to D right away sometimes.”
If Kansas football followers are guilty of dreaming big, like what would winning out and owning a 10-2 record mean for the postseason, it’s because Leipold has delivered beyond anyone’s expectations, like beating sixth-ranked Oklahoma three weeks ago.
Even Saturday provided another example. Starting quarterback Jason Bean went down ... twice: Slow to rise after being sandwiched between tacklers, and a few snaps later when he took another hard hit to the helmet on a failed fourth-and-2 keeper.
With Jalon Daniels unavailable again with a back injury, the offense was handed to freshman Cole Ballard, whose handful of snaps in two games was the sum total of his college playing experience.
But there’s plenty of football acumen here. Ballard is the son of Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard, the former Chiefs executive. Cole grew up around the game at the highest level. The moment wasn’t going to be too big for him.
“Andy Reid told Chris, get him around the game, get him around the locker room, around the opportunities,” Leipold said.
Just to makes things interesting, Ballard took over for good with Kansas pinned at the 1.
All he did was drive Kansas to the Tech 1-yard line, 98 yards on 18 plays. But the Jayhawks failed to punch it in, with red-zone woes a recurring failure on Saturday.
Still, handed a difficult assignment, Ballard grew more comfortable by the series until the fourth quarter when he led drives that produced a touchdown and two field goals to the the game 13-13.
Overtime seemed inevitable, but credit Tech for masterful execution to reach field-goal range with a few seconds to spare.
Kansas now gets to do something teams coming off a disappointing loss do: quickly turn the page and focus on Kansas State. The Wildcats visit to Lawrence next week in the most significant Sunflower Showdown since the Jayhawks and Wildcats met as top-15 teams in 1995.
Even before Saturday’s outcome, Leipold said the program decided to begin game prep a day early, on Sunday. For the first time since the Mark Mangino era, the game has a toss-up feel.
And for the first time in too many years, the loser is guaranteed to feel crushed. That’s how it works with good programs.