The mass of white jerseys trudged up a ramp in the bowels of High Point Solutions Stadium late Saturday afternoon, a slow procession that felt both funereal and all too familiar.
In the front stood Kansas head coach David Beaty, who stepped into the locker room in the moments after the Jayhawks’ 27-14 loss to Rutgers. In the middle stood Montell Cozart, a quarterback who had registered a 104-degree fever Friday night before slogging through the fog of illness just 15 hours later. And in the back, following closely behind, was KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who had watched his football program suffer its 31st straight true road loss and fall to 0-3 in this young season.
For a few moments, there was nothing but silence.
This was a game that was neither aesthetically pleasing nor all that dramatic, and Kansas suffered the kind of loss that can dull the senses and leave one wondering about the merits of college football as an entertainment enterprise. The KU defense was gashed for 312 rushing yards. A Rutgers program in general disarray chose to turn back the clock and jack-hammer its way to 58 rushing attempts. And a Kansas offense that juggled quarterbacks — one was ill, the other would leave with an injury — could never find a consistent spark.
“That’s a Big Ten football team, and they’re built a lot differently than we are,” Beaty would say of Rutgers. “They’re built to run right behind them big ole’ dudes up front.”
For Kansas, which continues to stare at the prospect of a winless season, the most interesting development came at quarterback, where junior Deondre Ford started in place of Cozart.
Cozart was quarantined in his hotel room Friday night as his fever spiked. He had the chills, he said, and the illness persisted until Saturday morning. According to Beaty, the decision to start Ford didn’t come until Saturday morning — when he saw a sick Cozart in the training room. In truth, Beaty clarified, both quarterbacks had shared time with the first unit all week.
“We were going to continue to evaluate those guys, all the way through walk-through,” Beaty said. “The decision was made a little easier, because (Cozart) was sick.”
Ford completed six of 13 passes for 85 yards and an interception as Rutgers built a 13-0 lead during the first quarter and a half. His day ended when he was leveled on a blitz and suffered a sprained thumb midway through the second quarter. That opened the door for Cozart to play through his illness, and he responded by immediately leading Kansas on its first scoring drive.
Cozart would finish 13 of 18 passing for 193 yards, but for the most part, the offense appeared to be limping through knee-deep mud. The Jayhawks’ rushing attack offered just 64 total yards, and the unit managed just one more touchdown in the second half.
“It was really tough,” said Cozart, who still appeared congested after the game.
At times, Cozart said, he was barely audible enough to get the snap count off.
“You gotta kind of bear with me,” he told center Keyon Haughton. “I’m talking as loud as I can.”
Beaty said he was proud of Cozart’s effort, but it offered just a measure of consolation. This was arguably the Jayhawks’ best remaining chance for a victory, and they could never quite threaten Rutgers in the second half.
In the days leading up to Saturday, this contest was poised to be a measuring stick for the miserable. The Jayhawks sat at 0-2 after consecutive losses to South Dakota State and Memphis. Hamstrung by a short-handed roster, the program has bottomed out and become a familiar target for the snarky.
Rutgers, meanwhile, had its own long list of problems. Its head coach, Kyle Flood, was serving the second game of a three-week suspension after violating a university policy regarding contact with a professor. Six players had been dismissed from the team after running afoul of the law. A seventh player, standout receiver Leonte Carroo-cq-HRS, is suspended indefinitely after allegedly committing assault after a game earlier this month. On Saturday, that didn’t stop quarterback Chris Laviano from completing 18 of 25 passes for 201 yards.
Earlier this week, ESPN ran a segment on its website, asking simply: “Kansas-Rutgers: Worst Game Ever?” On Saturday morning, two panelists on ESPN’s College GameDay couldn’t name KU’s football coach.
That was the context for this, a football game played in front of a relatively quiet crowd of 46,136 in central New Jersey. That was the context for this stretch in the first half, when KU picked off Laviano in the end zone, and the Jayhawks followed by fumbling on their next play, recovering the football, and then throwing their own interception one play later. The Scarlet Knights capitalized on that turnover and took a 13-0 lead. Fittingly, they missed the extra point.
In the moments after the game, Beaty remained calm, his players said. There is progress, Beaty said. Day by day, there is progress. The Jayhawks won the turnover margin again. The defense was a little more stable. Little things like that. But on Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, progress could not translate into a victory. So for now, Beaty is still looking for his first win. And if early signs are any indication, he could be searching for a while.
“I don’t know how he’d be after a win,” KU senior defensive end Ben Goodman said. “We haven’t won yet. But we’ll see soon.”
TableStyle: SP-byperiodsCCI Template: SP-byperiods
RU: Agudosi 14 pass from Laviano (Federico kick), 1:49.
RU: Flanagan 7 pass from Laviano (run failed), 9:24.
KU: Kinner 2 run (Bartolotta kick), 6:47.
RU: Hicks 1 run (Federico kick), 2:31.
RU: Hicks 4 run (Federico kick), 9:24.
KU: Kinner 1 run (Bartolotta kick), 2:05.
Pnt/Int ret yds
RUSHING: Kansas, Mann 5-40, Kinner 15-23, Ogletree 1-2, Cozart 6-1, Deo.Ford 2-(minus 2). Rutgers, Hicks 21-113, Martin 17-102, P.James 9-57, Laviano 8-44, Grant 1-2, Team 2-(minus 6).
PASSING: Kansas, Cozart 13-18-0-193, Deo.Ford 6-13-1-85, Sims 0-1-0-0. Rutgers, Laviano 18-25-2-201.
RECEIVING: Kansas, Parmalee 5-64, Patrick 3-70, Kinner 3-49, Taylor 2-29, Sims 2-12, Crawley 1-33, Hartzog 1-11, Johnson 1-5, Mann 1-5. Rutgers, Patton 5-53, Agudosi 3-28, Grant 2-33, Scarff 2-19, Flanagan 2-15, P.James 1-19, Bergen 1-14, Arcidiacono 1-11, Goodwin 1-9.