University of Kansas

How Pooka Williams gave KU its swagger back — and helped the team end a record streak

KU players celebrate end of FBS-record road losing streak

KU Jayhawks football players celebrate and coach David Beaty embraces booster Dana Anderson after Kansas ended a FBS record 46-game road losing streak with a 31-7 victory at Central Michigan on Sept. 8, 2018.
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KU Jayhawks football players celebrate and coach David Beaty embraces booster Dana Anderson after Kansas ended a FBS record 46-game road losing streak with a 31-7 victory at Central Michigan on Sept. 8, 2018.

The offensive meeting took place at the Radisson in Lansing, with Peyton Bender not surprised by the words that came next.

It’s customary at the team hotel walk-through for Kansas offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to speak about his game plan, and the most important part was shared with the quarterbacks immediately.

“Pooka,” Meacham said, “is getting the ball on the first play.”

A few hours later, KU football ended the biggest black mark in program history. The Jayhawks defeated Central Michigan, 31-7, while breaking a 46-game road losing streak, the longest ever by an FBS school.

And while the defense was dominant and the offense showed flashes in the passing game, there was a reason that everyone was talking about true freshman Pooka Williams afterward.

The running back — in his debut — had been able to deliver on his promise better than any hyped KU recruit in recent memory.

“He’s just a different kind of animal,” receiver Kerr Johnson said.

“He can change games,” KU coach David Beaty said.

“Like you saw today,” Bender said, “he can make something happen with it at any point.”

There was still doubt about his availability going in. Williams missed KU’s season-opening loss against Nicholls State for a non-disciplinary matter according to the team, and he hadn’t gotten many first-team reps this week.

That’s why KU’s breakfast gathering gained some life at 9:30 Saturday morning, as players were officially told that Williams had been cleared to play.

“Everyone kind of had a little smirk on their face,” Bender said. “‘All right, let’s see what he can do.’”

Meacham followed through on his promise, feeding Williams on the first play on an outside zone run for 7 yards.

That was just the start.

With KU clinging to a 7-0 lead after halftime, Williams broke multiple tackles on a 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, high-stepping his way into the end zone.

It gave KU’s sideline noticeable swagger — something often absent in the past following a decade’s-worth of road losses.

“He’s just a momentum guy,” KU linebacker Joe Dineen said. “You feed off each other, and when you get a guy like Pooka that can make things happen all over the field, it really picks us up.”

Dineen followed with an interception — the first of his 40-game career — before Williams was at it again, springing free on a draw play for a 41-yard score down the left sideline.

“Those are two plays that you don’t get to take out and say, ‘It was no big deal,’” Beaty said, “because it was.”

For so many years, KU fans had pinned their hopes on top-rated players who never seemed to pan out. Five-star quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps never could replicate their high school success, while talented juco running back Octavius Matthews didn’t play a snap for KU after he was discovered to have a serious heart condition.

So one couldn’t blame those around Lawrence for wondering, after Williams’ absence in the opener, if Murphy’s Law was going to strike again. Would Williams — Rivals’ 178th-ranked player in last year’s class — go down as a footnote, destined to be another Jayhawk who wouldn’t contribute as expected?

Whatever changed this week to make him available — Beaty said he couldn’t say any more about Williams’ situation after the game — it ended up being a vital part of a banner day. Williams finished with 14 rushes for 125 yards, averaging 9 yards per carry as part of a memorable first impression.

“The guy’s got a real third gear, man,” Beaty said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

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And so this is what the end of KU’s road losing streak looked like. Booster Dana Anderson — his name is on the football facility — made his way down to the sideline for the end, leading fans in the waving of the wheat after a score. He also embraced Beaty as he walked off the field.

“He was in tears,” Beaty said.

The coach then made his way to the locker room, where water flew through the air and players knocked into each other in celebration. Beaty was mobbed once he entered.

“You could just see pure happiness and excitement on his face,” Johnson said. “He was in there turning up with us.”

Beaty had gone through a trying week. There were many calling for his job after KU fell to an FCS opponent at home, believing it was time for the program to move forward.

But the coach said he saw a resolve from his players early at practices, making him believe a bounce-back was possible.

“It’s a really veteran group,” Beaty said. “Unfortunately, they’ve been through a lot. But fortunately, they’ve been through a lot.”

Now, that adversity won’t have to include hearing about a road losing streak — one that began in 2009 and spanned five different coaches.

“I’m excited to be on the team that broke it,” Dineen said. “It’s a long time coming.”

Jesse Newell

Jesse Newell covers University of Kansas athletics for The Star.

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