In the final moments of a steamy afternoon, as the clock ticked down, and the football rested at the 33-yard line, Matthew Wyman stood on the sideline of Memorial Stadium, counting the yardage for his game-tying field-goal attempt.
Wyman, a junior kicker who specializes in long-range bombs, had his helmet on, ready to go, a 50-yard field goal coming up to send Kansas’ season opener against South Dakota State into overtime.
All Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart had to do was spike the ball.
This was the final seconds before everything went haywire, before Kansas lost a football game on a fumbled snap, before KU coach David Beaty lost his head coaching debut in bizarre and deflating fashion, before Cozart attempted to explain the confusing final seconds of the Jayhawks’ 41-38 loss to South Dakota State on Saturday afternoon.
“You never think about stuff like that until it happens to you,” said Cozart, a junior. “And it felt like someone just uppercut me right in the gut.”
Beaty stated that he’d never seen a game end like this. The same goes for most of Kansas’ players. And if you did not see the video of the final moments, you might have a hard time believing the sequence as well. The Jayhawks had trailed 31-7 by the opening minutes of the second quarter. They had surged back into the game on the strength of their hurry-up, no-huddle offense. With two minutes remaining, Cozart had hit tight end Kent Taylor on a corner route in the end zone to cut South Dakota State’s lead to 41-38. And after electing to kick deep, the Kansas defense forced a punt with the clock ticking under 50 seconds left.
Four plays later, Cozart hit receiver Derrick Neal over the middle for a 20-yard gain. The ball sat at the 33. The clock said 7 seconds. And center Keyon Haugton stood over the ball.
“I think I got too lax and when the ball hit me, I just never really got a great grasp of it,” said Cozart. “I fumbled, so I just tried to get on it real quick and get the guys lined right back up. But we only had like 4 or 3 seconds left.”
Cozart, who earned the starting job in the preseason, finished his season opener with 297 yards passing and 94 rushing yards in 17 carries. He completed 25 of his 38 pass attempts, and he shrugged off two early turnovers — an interception and a fumble on a hit that forced him out for two plays. But the final moments will haunt him. He was slightly surprised by the snap, he said, and he didn’t secure the ball. Still, his head coach took responsibility.
“This one goes on me,” Beaty said. “It’s not on those kids. I didn’t have them prepared to get it done right.”
After the game, Beaty found Cozart in the Kansas locker room. (“We wouldn’t have been in that game without you, bro,” Beaty said.) Cozart could take some solace in his performance, the best of his career. But beyond the particulars of the final moments, this reality may sting even more. The Jayhawks lost a season opener at home to a South Dakota State program from the Football Championship Subdivision. And the schedule does not get any easier from here.
“I didn’t get them prepared well enough to win the game,” said Beaty, who was hired last December to revive a lost football program. “We did just good enough to stay close. And we didn’t do good enough to win the game.”
In many ways, Beaty’s rebuilding job is going to require patience. The Jayhawks entered the season with just more than 60 scholarship players, and against South Dakota State, they featured 12 players starting their first game for Kansas. Saturday required patience as well.
The morning started early. At 8 a.m., Beaty donned a dark suit and red tie and walked his players down Kansas’ famed hill in his inaugural Hawk Walk. The night before his first game, Beaty said, he slept just fine. But by early in the second quarter, he had to be feeling a little anxious.
South Dakota State finished the first half with 291 total yards, eviscerating a new-look Kansas defense in the process. The Jackrabbits had built a 31-7 lead with 12:38 left in the second quarter, including 14 points off KU turnovers.
“We wanted to know how they were going to fight when they got into an adverse situation,” Beaty said. “We happened to get into an adverse situation pretty quick.”
The Jayhawks, though, did not cower or fold. Junior running back Ke’aun Kinner, a junior-college transfer making his KU debut, rushed for 157 yards in 27 carries. The newly installed Air Raid offense would hit a groove, finishing with 576 total yards and KU twice cut the lead to three points.
“We started utilizing tempo, and going fast, and getting lined up at the rate that we want to,” Beaty said. “Then we were pretty decent today at times.”
If a loss to a program from a lower division could ever be termed as encouraging, well, this could perhaps qualify. But then again, that is setting a low bar for the Kansas program. By the end of the day, Beaty was left wondering what would have happened had his team just spiked the ball. Moments earlier, the Jayhawks had cut the lead to 41-38 with 2:18 left, and Beaty had elected to forgo an onside kick and kick deep. He had conferred with defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, who promised him a stop, and he had spoken with offensive coordinator Rob Likens, who said he only need “15 seconds” to put the Jayhawks in position to score.
The plan nearly worked. Then the ball slipped away.
“It’s hard to deal with,” said Wyman, the kicker left on the sideline. “It’s a letdown, the final play of the game, and it’s the one play that matters. We’ll bounce back.”
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 41
SDST: FG Carlson 28, 12:44.
SDST: Mengarelli 25 run (Carlson kick), 8:09.
KU: Schadler 91 kickoff return (Bartolotta kick), 7:57.
SDST: J.Wieneke 29 pass from Lujan (Carlson kick), 4:33.
SDST: J.Wieneke 16 pass from Lujan (Carlson kick), 13:39.
SDST: Mengarelli 29 pass from Lujan (Carlson kick), 12:38.
KU: Parmalee 19 run (Bartolotta kick), 7:14.
KU: Kinner 3 run (Bartolotta kick), 12:31.
KU: Kinner 26 run (Bartolotta kick), 9:12.
SDST: FG Carlson 24, 1:04.
KU: FG Bartolotta 23, 11:18.
SDST: Wallace 3 run (Carlson kick), 6:18.
KU: Taylor 10 pass from Cozart (Bartolotta kick), 2:18.
RUSHING: S. Dakota State, Wallace 24-118, Mengarelli 10-69, Team 1-(minus 6), Lujan 4-(minus 11). Kansas, Kinner 27-157, Cozart 17-94, Parmalee 1-19, Mann 4-13, Schadler 1-2.
PASSING: S. Dakota State, Lujan 17-33-0-293. Kansas, Cozart 25-38-1-291, Willis 0-2-0-0.
RECEIVING: S. Dakota State, J.Wieneke 8-160, Goedert 2-49, Wesley 2-33, Wallace 2-8, Mengarelli 1-29, Jones 1-7, Landberg 1-7. Kansas, Mann 4-15, Parmalee 3-82, Hartzog 3-24, Sims 3-15, Johnson 3-12, Crawley 2-64, Taylor 2-25, Stanford 2-19, Barbel 2-15, Neal 1-20.