The highs were so high, and the lows were so low, and maybe this is the story of Kansas football. There was the gift of expected success — the kind that nobody really even dreamed of — and then there was a cliff.
This is the craziness of Kansas football — at least over the last eight years. Nobody was really expecting the Orange Bowl. The BCS? That’s not KU football. But then again, nobody was really expecting to lose 40 of 42 Big 12 games. THAT wasn’t Kansas football, either.
There was the great, followed closely by the terrible, and how do you explain that?
A few years ago, Kansas’ receiving corps failed to catch a touchdown for a whole season. Yes, the whole season. The Jayhawks once allowed 764 yards to Georgia Tech. The same year, they gained just 46 yards against Texas.
Three years ago, Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma State torched the KU defense for 56 unanswered points … in the first half. Two years later, Oklahoma walled off KU’s aerial attack, allowing just 16 yards passing … for a full game.
If you want to locate more numbers to illustrate the brutality of the last four-plus years, it is not difficult. Kansas has lost 24 straight on the road. The Big 12 victories come about once every three years. And the Jayhawks have not defeated a Big 12 opponent from Texas in seven years. The numbers are so startling — so mind-bogglingly awful — that they serve to accomplish something else, an unintended consequence of all the bad. They make the not-so-distant peaks seem all the more incredible.
Just three years after the program’s finest moment, the Jayhawks were already mired in the worst four-year run the school has ever seen. The two extremes exist to highlight the other, showing how a program goes from really good to really bad, really fast. But as we inspect what went wrong, let’s take a look at seven moments that were once Kansas football — as crazy as it now sounds.
1. Kansas 76, Nebraska 39
“I didn’t think we were going to score 76 points today, but by the time we got to the middle of the third quarter, I said: ‘We’re gonna score a lot of points today.’ I still thought eventually there would be some stops.”
Those were words from Kansas coach Mark Mangino, in the moments after his Jayhawks rather plainly embarrassed Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in 2007. Nothing about the result made any earthy sense. This was Kansas. That was Nebraska. This was basketball school. That was a gridiron power.
This was football. That was an epic shellacking.
“Putting up 76 points against anybody is pretty difficult,” Mangino made sure to point out.
In retrospect, it feels a little like Kansas 76, Nebraska 39 never really happened. This is true of a lot of the days from Mangino’s mini-football revival. But more than the Orange Bowl, more than Reesing-to-Meier, more than Bill Snyder actually losing to Kansas, this result feels a little more like a lucid dream.
The 76 points were the most ever scored against Nebraska’s Black Shirts. The Jayhawks finished with 11 touchdowns. And as Tully Corcoran of the Topeka Capital-Journal put it:
“Todd Reesing went 30-for-41 for 354 yards, a school-record six touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks, a 4.0 GPA and not even a single unpaid parking ticket in his glove box.”
By the end, the Jayhawks were 9-0 for the first time since 1908, and Nebraska coach Bill Callahan was on his way out.
“There’s really no words to explain this loss,” Callahan said.
He was right.
2. The Orange Bowl
You probably remember the Orange Bowl, of course. You might remember Aqib Talib’s pick-six, or Joe Mortensen’s blocked field goal, or that successful fake punt against Virginia Tech’s vaunted special teams.
You probably remember the final score: KU 24, Virginia Tech 21.
But that is not what Olaitan Oguntodu remembers. When Oguntodu, a reserve linebacker, is asked to think back to that week, he first thinks about a speech from senior running back Brandon McAnderson.
“I remember Brandon McAnderson,” Oguntodu begins. “B-Mac was like: ‘A lot has been said about this year, and all that. But it means nothing if we don’t win the game. We didn’t win the Big 12. We didn’t even go to the Big 12 championship. All that said, if we don’t win the game, what does it mean?’”
“If you really think about it, if we would have gone to the Orange Bowl and lost, everybody would have been like: ‘Well, they went to the Orange Bowl, but should they have really went?’
“That was the biggest point. A senior that had never carried the ball as much as he did his senior year was stepping up.”
Or, as reserve running back Angus Quigley put it: “Missouri fans were irate. Everything just played out so well.”
3. No. 1 vote in the AP poll
The final Associated Press poll of the 2007-08 season was a bit of a jumbled mess. LSU, which captured the BCS Championship with an 11-2 record, claimed 60 of 65 first-place votes. Georgia was No. 2, earning three first-place votes after demolishing Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. And Southern Cal, which was ranked third, also picked up a spare first-place vote.
Then there was Kansas, ranked No. 7 in the final poll after its Orange Bowl triumph. And yes, the Jayhawks also snagged a first-place vote. (Thanks Israel Gutierrez!)
It was not the first first-place vote of the season; Kansas also had three such votes after starting 11-0 and rising to No. 2 in the polls. But in hindsight, we’ll feel safe saying this: During the BCS era, Kansas was the most random program to ever claim a No. 1 vote in a final AP poll.
“First of all,” Gutierrez told The Star after the poll came out, “I gotta say I was kind of stunned that I was the only one. I just thought in a year with so much parity that people would have been a little bit more willing to take a chance and not just go with the team that won last or played last or the BCS gave the title to.”
4. “Shades of Doug Flutie”
On a November night in 2007, a Kansas team ranked fifth in the country arrived in Stillwater, Okla., for a road test under the lights. The game was played in ESPN’s coveted Saturday night slot. Brent Musburger was on the call. And the country was still a little skeptical of this crazy thing happening in Lawrence.
In the hours before the game, No. 1 Ohio State had suffered its first loss, leaving KU as the nation’s only unbeaten team from a BCS Conference.
Then this happened.
The Jayhawks rolled 43-28 that night. Senior Marcus Henry led the way with 199 yards receiving. McAnderson had 142 yards rushing. In the context of today, the whole conceit sounds pretty ridiculous. Kansas football was playing a primetime game on ESPN? Kansas football was the only undefeated BCS team in the country? Kansas football was improving to 10-0 while your quarterback goes full Flutie? The whole thing sounds, well… impossible.
“They did tonight,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told reporters, “what they’ve done all year long: Not make mistakes, very few penalties, take care of the football.”
5. Reesing to Meier in the snow
One year after losing Armageddon at Arrowhead, Kansas repaid No. 12 Missouri on a slushy day in Kansas City. The victory ensured back-to-back winning seasons for Kansas for the first time since 1994-95. The Jayhawks would go on to win the Insight Bowl, the first back-to-back bowl victories in program history.
But mostly, the day is remembered for this:
6. Dezmon Briscoe’s 269-yard day
In 2013, Kansas’ top three receivers — Tony Pierson, Brandon Bourbon, Christian Matthews — combined for 55 catches and 542 yards. It was a pedestrian output, horrific numbers from perhaps the nation’s worst passing attack.
The numbers are even more barren when you compare them to one day in 2008, when Dezmon Briscoe hauled in 12 passes for 269 yards in a loss to Oklahoma. Briscoe, a sophomore, finished with 92 catches for 1,407 yards that season, hilarious numbers when you consider KU — as a team — managed just 1,600 passing yards last season. Briscoe wasn’t even a one-man receiving corps; Kerry Meier had 97 catches for 1,045 yards the same year.
By 2010, Briscoe and Meier were both gone. As was Reesing. And the passing game has never been the same — nor even close.
7. The road victory at K-State
The stretch dates back 24 seasons, to a time when the idea of naming a football stadium after Bill Snyder would have seemed quite weird. So let’s start here: Kansas has played 11 games in Manhattan since the end of the 1989 season. The Jayhawks have lost 10 of them, most by huge margins.
The one exception: a 30-24 victory in 2007.
“That was incredible. I’ll remember that forever,” says defensive lineman Jeff Wheeler. “We were kind of slacking behind and then by the end of it, we were just like ‘Eff you, we’re not going to lose this.’ That was just an incredible moment. And being able to play in a game like that, I’ll always remember it.”