When he walked toward the locker room following Kansas’ 29-24 loss to West Virginia, Kansas safety Mike Lee heard something he wasn’t expecting.
Though he didn’t look up, to his right he heard clapping ... then more, and even more.
“It caught me off guard,” Lee said, “because that had never happened before.”
KU receiver Andrew Parchment — in his first season with the Jayhawks — said the conversation about that moment continued a few minutes later. KU’s veteran players, accustomed in earlier years to sparse crowds and supporters leaving early, couldn’t help but take notice after receiving a standing ovation from those in the southwest stands as they exited Booth Memorial Stadium.
“(Teammates) just said that was a lot different from before,” Parchment said. “Usually, the crowd would have walked out a long time ago, especially when we got down by two touchdowns, and it was still decent crowd out there.
“I’m just happy that KU fans came out and supported us.”
Perhaps some will take a hard-line stance here. Sports are about winning, and KU did not do that Saturday in what, on paper, was its most gettable game on the Big 12 conference schedule.
Put that to the side, though, and it’ll likely be difficult for KU fans to be anything but be encouraged by the direction of the program after Saturday ... even with the Jayhawks dropping to 2-2.
The postgame gesture from ticket-holders seemed to reflect that as well.
“I just was very thankful that the people who came into that stadium enjoyed what they saw,” KU coach Les Miles said, “because those kids were playing their hearts out.”
When listing positives, one has to start with the buzz the program is generating. Following a 48-24 victory over Boston College last week, KU football drew a higher home attendance for a third straight contest; this time 35,816 was announced, which was the highest home total since a 2017 game against Kansas State.
Those people Saturday made an impact too. The student section was nearly filled to the top — a rare occurrence in recent seasons.
The noise also was at a different level. KU quarterback Carter Stanley at one point had to try to quiet the crowd — something he’s never done in his Jayhawks career. West Virginia also had a false start that was influenced by a rowdy environment, and KU cornerback and captain Bryce Torneden said it was the best home environment of his four-year tenure.
“Even when we wanted to get down, we look up in the stands and see our fans still in it,” KU cornerback Hasan Defense said. “So there’s no way we would be out of it.”
The Jayhawks made it interesting all the way to the final play.
After falling behind 12 in the fourth quarter, Stanley engineered a 70-yard touchdown drive with 2:10 left. KU’s final desperation gasp came from its own 48 with just a few ticks left, and the team executed a hook-and-ladder pitch that nearly broke free, with Pooka Williams finally being shuffled out of bounds at the 12-yard line.
Perhaps the big-picture takeaway here is the fact that most KU fans remained in their seats because of something that’s been absent for most of the last decade: hope.
This wasn’t a KU team beating itself with penalties. There wasn’t disorganization on the field or unnecessary timeouts or a Jayhawks squad looking hopelessly outmatched talent-wise by a Big 12 foe.
This was a roster that played hard and gave effort ... and simply made a few too many mistakes. Two of them in particular — a fumble and interception by Stanley — proved costly, with KU dropping its season-long turnover margin to minus-six in four games.
“You can’t survive with those kinds of happenings,” Miles said of the giveaways.
Yet, even knowing that, a rational view would say KU also was just a bit unlucky too. One of the best indicators of wins and losses is yards-per-play totals, and the Jayhawks finished at 7.4 while the Mountaineers were at 4.6.
So here’s a stat: According to College Football Reference’s Play Index, there had been 65 college football teams coming into this week who had gained more than 7 yards per play while holding their opponent to 5 yards or fewer in a game.
The record of those squads before Saturday: 64-1.
In the end, it still goes down as a loss. KU falls to 2-2 and has a rough stretch of schedule ahead while playing ranked teams each of the next three weeks.
Yet, in the aftermath, this still felt like a step for the program. There was competitiveness. There was competence.
And yes, as KU fans confirmed after the game, there also was some hope.
“We feel the spirits, and we know, ‘OK, something’s on the verge of being great,’” Defense said. “We’re all going down the right path, from coaching staff to equipment staff to us.
“We’re just going in the right direction, and with the fans behind us, it feels even better.”