The quarterback saw a defender release into the flat. The receiver put his eyes on the first-down marker. The coach just wanted a big play to finally go his way.
It was the opening minutes of the fourth quarter on Saturday, a tie game between Kansas and Central Michigan at Memorial Stadium. It was third and 9. The ball at KU’s own 40-yard line. The prospect of another loss hung in the balance.
“I just trusted Justin,” Kansas sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart would say later.
In the next moment, Cozart stepped up in the pocket and threw a perfect strike to senior receiver Justin McCay, a throw to the outside shoulder that traveled from the arm of one former Bishop Miege High standout to the arms of another.
McCay hauled in the reception, eluded a falling Central Michigan defender, and saw nothing but green turf.
“I guess I’m going to score a touchdown today,” McCay thought.
In the hour after Kansas’ 24-10 victory over Central Michigan, Cozart and McCay sat inside the Anderson Family Football Complex and looked at video of the game-deciding, 60-yard touchdown. In one sense, it was just one big play with more than 13 minutes left.
For Kansas, 2-1, it was the kind of touchdown that might lead to a program-wide catharsis — a giant exhale that included a scene of chaos in the locker room after the game.
“Dancing,” said Cozart, who finished 23 of 33 for 226 yards passing.
“I wish you’d just be able to see,” Kansas coach Charlie Weis said. “The locker room was as happy a locker room as we’ve had in a long time.”
Just seven days after a 41-3 debacle at Duke, the Jayhawks responded with a victory that, for now, may be crucial for Weis’ immediate job security. The Jayhawks were hardly dominant or impressive — the defense carried the day in a slugfest — but they managed to survive the afternoon. Weis improved to 3-21 against Bowl Championship Subdivision teams at Kansas. And if there was a question as to whether Weis would be back on the sideline for the Homecoming battle against Texas on Saturday, the Jayhawks’ defense answered it with a collection of stops in the final minutes — highlighted by some big plays from linebacker Jake Love.
“Probably everybody on the team realizes that everybody is throwing shots at coach Weis,” senior Tony Pierson said. “But we zone it out, and we’re just going to keep on working for him.”
For Pierson, that meant sprinting 74 yards around the left edge for a touchdown on the game’s opening play from scrimmage. That gave Kansas a 7-0 lead. For freshman Corey Avery, that meant hauling in a game-clinching 30-yard touchdown catch in the final minutes. For Cozart, that meant picking apart Central Michigan on a slew of short throws after last week’s dismal performance at Duke. For McCay, that meant using his big body to shield a defender and finishing off the 60-yard touchdown catch.
“Stag to Stag,” Cozart said, referencing the mascot of Bishop Miege, where they both played high school football. “Me and Justin have a great chemistry off the field. He’s kind of like a big brother to me, and he’s been like that since Miege. So I trust him.”
McCay added: “I guess it was a game-changing play.”
Saturday’s victory likely was not a cure-all for the problems that plague Kansas. One week earlier, Central Michigan had fallen 40-3 to Syracuse on its own field. The Jayhawks led just 7-3 at halftime — waiting through a 27-minute weather delay — and the offense still struggled to put points on the board.
But one week after a face plant at Duke, the Jayhawks arrived at Memorial Stadium on Saturday with a simple mission: Play hard for their embattled coach.
They accomplished that — and avoided another step back.
“We’re going to have to win some games that are slugfests,” Weis said.
In the moments after the game, Weis talked about his previous six days. He had attempted, he claimed, to turn off his computer and shut himself off from outside criticism. (“I barely know what’s going on with ISIS,” Weis said.) In his third year on the job, the KU football program hadn’t shown measurable progress in performances against Southeast Missouri State and Duke. If doubts had clouded over the KU football program following the Duke loss, Weis tried to stay insulated.
It paid off. On Saturday, the Jayhawks were lining up in the victory formation. Was it progress? It certainly was something. And a few moments later, Weis took the long walk back to his office-turned-bunker.
“A bunker mentality,” Weis said. “You just got to work your way out of it. You try to dig yourself out.”