By the strict definitions of football, Kansas’ 34-21 loss to Texas Tech concluded early Saturday evening, just past 5:45 p.m. at Jones AT&T Stadium. In the moments after the loss, the KU players walked slowly up a turf-lined ramp. Interim coach Clint Bowen, exhausted after more than three hours of clapping and stalking on the sideline, did the same.
The Jayhawks had fallen to 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Big 12. They lost their 27th straight game on the road, a streak that now feels permanently affixed to the program. They twice cut Texas Tech’s lead to just six points during the second half, but each time, the comeback bid ran out of steam.
But those are just the specifics of what occurred in Lubbock on Saturday. In a truer sense, the Jayhawks lost their latest Big 12 game hours earlier, during a series of first-half miscues and missed opportunities that led to a 17-0 deficit just 8 minutes, 3 seconds into the second quarter.
“Not very good,” Bowen would say, before adding: “We expected that they were going to come out with some energy and some tempo with a few things we probably hadn’t seen, and we knew were going to have to match it early.”
So, perhaps this was not what Bowen had in mind: During an opening sequence, the Jayhawks dropped a sure-fire interception, failed to convert on fourth-and-short and missed a 37-yard field goal. They also lost playmaker Tony Pierson to an undisclosed injury after just a few plays in the first quarter.
Just a week earlier, the Jayhawks trailed Oklahoma State 20-7 at halftime before having a chance to win late in the second half. This time, the story followed a similar script. After falling behind 17-0, the Jayhawks finally scored in the final minute of the first half before cutting Texas Tech’s lead to 20-14 and then 27-21 during a second-half surge. The Jayhawks, though, could never fully escape the early hole.
“It’s the little things,” said junior quarterback Michael Cummings, who started his second game of the season. “You’ve got to be able to execute the little things to make the big things happen.”
Earlier in the week, Bowen had repeated the message he has preached since taking over for Charlie Weis in late November.
“What this team needed was an identity,” Bowen said.
In three games under Bowen, the Jayhawks have forged something close. An element of toughness has returned. And the Jayhawks have had opportunities to win in the second half. For a program that is now 2- 37 against the Big 12 since the 2010 season, that is something.
“It’s obviously a lot different than before,” KU tight end Jimmay Mundine said, “when our chances to win weren’t even there.”
As the Jayhawks enter a bye week, they can feel good about that. But with a closing stretch that includes games against four ranked teams — Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State — the schedule will provide the real test of character.
That made Saturday’s loss, against a Texas Tech team that entered on a four-game losing skid, all the more excruciating. Especially after Kansas’ defense twice surrendered long touchdown drives after the offense cut the lead to one score. The last Texas Tech score — a six-play, 72-yard drive that took just 1 minute, 42 seconds — pushed Texas Tech’s lead to 34-21 and effectively iced the game with more than 13 minutes left.
“It’s really frustrating,” said senior linebacker Ben Heeney, who finished with a career-high 21 tackles and an interception. “It’s obviously not what we wanted to do.”
All night long, Texas Tech, 3-4 and 1-3 in the Big 12, hit the KU defense with crossing routes over the middle — “switch routes,” Heeney said — and the Jayhawks couldn’t contain some of the underneath patterns. Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb finished 28 of 44 for 288 yards, 205 of which came in the first half. In the second half, the Red Raiders gashed Kansas on the ground, finishing with 239 yards rushing.
Cummings found a rhythm after the slow start, hitting Justin McCay for a 16-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in the first half. He finished 20 of 32 for 235 yards, connecting with Mundine for a 21-yard touchdown strike midway through the third quarter.
“We’ve got to find a way to come out with fire in the first half and put two halves together,” Cummings said, “so we can finish a game.”
Sure enough, the loss was defined by the early hole, the little things that added up to a 17-point deficit. Cornerback Dexter McDonald dropped a would-be interception, just moments before Texas Tech extended its lead to 10-0. Sophomore kicker Matthew Wyman pushed a 37-yard field goal wide right, spiking an early scoring chance.
For another Saturday, the Jayhawks were closer. But still looking for their full identity.
“A game like this and a game like last week,” Heeney said. “These ones hurt.”