Fox television cameras missed the fun. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder did not.
The strangest moment of Kansas’ football season — in a year filled with lots of them — took place midway through the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 21-17 loss to K-State. The Jayhawks had a second consecutive long run called back by a holding penalty, and tight end Mavin Saunders either lost his mind ... or, perhaps, decided in the moment to become a stand-up comedian.
“I watched it. I saw it,” the 79-year-old Snyder said after the game. “Somewhat amazed.”
Saunders picked up an official’s flag that was inside the 10-yard line. That’s what Fox Sports Network replays showed.
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What happened after that, though, was even more stunning. Saunders stood on top of the flag, trying to pretend like it wasn’t on the field so officials didn’t think it was there. After the holding call was made, Saunders kicked his leg back, sending the flag into the air before it came to rest again on the turf.
That drew another penalty. Unsportsmanlike conduct.
The markoff only ended up being 2 yards — half the distance to the goal — but it also helped fire up a Wildcats’ crowd that had been dormant most of the game.
Snyder was later asked if he thought Saunders’ antics were “comical.”
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot comical in the course of a ballgame for me,” Snyder said. “At this moment, it is, yes.”
Not so funny for KU. Especially considering the circumstances; KU was winning 17-14, on the verge of picking up its first Big 12 road victory in more than 10 years.
KU coach David Beaty said he didn’t see much of what happened because he was watching the long run develop. But he was told Saunders threw the flag.
“That should never happen,” Beaty said, “particularly with a guy that’s been around for a long time.”
It was all a footnote to another loss. KU fell for the 10th straight time to K-State, with one reality coming through clearly again.
KU senior linebacker Joe Dineen said in his experience, K-State has been a team that is disciplined while relying on you to make the mistakes yourself.
The Jayhawks did plenty of that throughout the game, which included one drive in particular at the end of the first half that encapsulated some overarching struggles of the Beaty era.
Start with the first play of the possession, with KU leading 3-0 and 3:10 left in the second quarter. Receiver Steven Sims ran a hitch and go, fooling a Kansas State defensive back to the point where he slipped and fell down. The Wildcats had no safety help, meaning KU quarterback Peyton Bender had a huge margin for error on his throw for a potential touchdown.
Instead, the pass sailed too far toward the sideline with Sims managing to get one foot in for a 26-yard gain ... but not a TD.
Three plays later, Bender tried to make up for it. He stepped up in the pocket, delivering a throw so accurate to a downfield Kwamie Lassiter that it hit him in the helmet.
Another potential touchdown. This one, though, clanged off Lassiter’s head and hands before falling to the ground.
After all that, the worst moment of the drive still came later. Following a Pooka Williams’ run, KU faced fourth-and-17 from the K-State 40 with 17 seconds left and the clock running. The Jayhawks could have tried a Hail Mary just before halftime. They could have tried a 57-yard field goal — kicker Gabriel Rui made a 54-yarder earlier this year — with help from a strong wind at their backs.
Instead, chaos. KU had previously used all three of its timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties, meaning it couldn’t stop the clock. Rui ran on the field with a few seconds left without his holder, turning back to the sideline to see if there was a plan.
There wasn’t. The time ran out, with a myriad of KU mistakes culminating in the team giving itself no chance at points right before the break.
Bender described it this way: “I thought we were bringing out the field-goal unit, so we were kind of jogging off. The last minute, it was like, ‘Let’s throw a Hail Mary. Let’s throw a Hail Mary.’ We tried to run back out there, but it was too late at that point.”
Because KU had an opportunity to run the half’s final play, it seemed like a low-risk chance to potentially get a score. Beaty didn’t see it that way, saying he didn’t want to try a long field goal (“We just felt like it was too rushed, and if we did get that thing blocked, it could have turned into points for them”) while stating KU also didn’t have the right personnel in to run the offensive play it wanted in that situation.
“I don’t feel bad about the way that we ended in that first half, because I thought we made strategically some pretty good situations to get us in position,” Beaty said. “We weren’t close enough to do any of the things we’d all love to have done, so we just tried to play the odds and be smart enough to get out of there without having a turnover.”
A turnover with zero seconds left, though, doesn’t matter unless it’s returned for a touchdown. In any case, KU took a 3-0 lead at the half and didn’t give itself a try at more points when it was on the opponent’s 40 partly because previous errors burned up valuable timeouts.
It also was an accurate reflection of how Beaty coached Saturday even after being told Sunday by athletic director Jeff Long that he would not be retained past this season. The coach remained ultra-conservative, punting on a fourth-and-1 near midfield in the first quarter and also kicking a short field goal at the end of an 18-play, 94-yard drive in the second quarter. In that instance, KU faced fourth-and-1 from the K-State 4-yard line, a situation where even the most risk-averse of coaches tend to go for it because of the underlying math.
In the end, some small things for KU were part of what added up to a close-margin loss.
“From our standpoint, we’ve got to win games, man,” Beaty said. “That’s why what happened this week happened (with the firing). You’ve got to produce. That’s the way it works.”
The Jayhawks deserve credit for being in it. Beaty said he was proud of his players’ fight in a tough week while saying the contest was “entertaining until the very end.”
Those words were true in a couple ways. KU was competitive late ... while also having some sideshow tendencies thanks to Saunders’ flag routine.
“I saw him do it. It’s a penalty if you do that,” Bender said. “You’ve got to be smarter than that.”