After eight years, Maxwell Onyegbule most remembers the postgame celebration.
Kansas coach Mark Mangino stood in the middle of the circle as the chant started. Teammates locked arms while swaying side to side, repeating “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, KU” in a tradition that always seemed more satisfying in an opponent’s locker room.
“I know we haven’t done it in a while,” Onyegbule said.
His words are true even if they’re painful to say.
Onyegbule had two sacks and six tackles in that game on Sept. 12, 2009 — a 34-7 road victory over UTEP in a time before iPads were invented and when Barack Obama was only eight months into his eight-year presidency.
This was KU football’s last road win, the start of a tailspin that has extended to 41 losses away from Memorial Stadium.
“It’s hard to fathom, because it has been a while,” former KU receiver Kerry Meier said. “But the best part about it is … the next game is the most important.”
Before looking ahead — and Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Ohio appears to be KU’s most winnable road game in some time — perhaps it’s instructive to look back.
What was it that allowed the Jayhawks to have success back in 2009 on the day they last won away from Lawrence?
Onyegbule says confidence had a lot to do with it. KU was coming off an 8-5 season, which included a victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl. It meant the challenge of winning in El Paso, Texas, didn’t seem daunting.
“We just treated it like another game, another notch on the belt that we’ve got to buckle,” Onyegbule said. “ … It was just another game that we knew we had to win to prove that we’re worthy of playing in the Big 12.”
Meier also says KU was helped in that particular game by a fast start.
He remembers the challenges that came with road trips. Some teammates had never flown on a plane before that weekend. Others weren’t accustomed to a change in the routine.
Once the Jayhawks scored on their first two possessions to take a 10-0 lead, though, it was clear the focus was going to remain on football.
“You have to win on the road to be successful,” Meier said. “That’s the only way you can do it.”
It makes this Saturday’s game all the more important — both for this year’s team and also for the future of the program.
KU will have few better chances to stop a skid that is bordering on historic. The Jayhawks haven’t been a single-digit road underdog in any of their previous three seasons, according to the betting site Odds Shark, as the closest was on Sept. 13, 2014. Duke, an 11-point favorite, won that contest 41-3.
Ohio enters Saturday’s game as an eight-point favorite.
“Somebody is going to break it. Might as well be us,” KU coach David Beaty said of the streak. “Might as well be this week.”
Without a win, KU would continue to inch toward infamy. The Jayhawks’ road losing streak, according to College Football Reference, is second all-time to Western (Colo.) State, which lost 44 straight between 1926 and 1936.
It was a different era of football then. An Associated Press article from Western State’s streak-ending victory over Colorado College in 1937 praised the team for “packing a scoring punch” when it won the game 7-3. The game-winning touchdown also came on a double-pass from a fake field goal — an event not likely to occur in today’s game.
From a big-picture perspective, it’s difficult to underplay the importance of getting that elusive road win. KU’s coaches already face a challenge in recruiting, and the program’s black mark will continue to be a talking point until it no longer exists.
“Shoot, I know Coach Beaty has that saying, ‘Earn it,’” Onyegbule said. “The players, they just have to believe that, go out there and earn it. That’s simple and short, simple and sweet.”
Meier, who had four receptions and a 56-yard pass in that 2009 UTEP game, says two types of victories were always most rewarding in his career: comeback wins and ones on the road. The latter resulted in the best kind of locker room, with swaying and singing and a happy coach in the middle of the huddle.
Meier says he has “a good feeling” that might be repeated Saturday.
“They’ve had that monkey on their back for 41 games,” Meier said. “It’s very cliché, but the time is right.”