This was not a dumpster-fire loss, and that’s how Kansas football progress is measured these days.
The Jayhawks dropped their opener for the reason teams lose games. They committed two turnovers in the first half and both led to short-field touchdowns by South Dakota State, which went on to win 41-38.
That makes Saturday’s bottom line a terrible outcome for Kansas in coach David Beaty’s debut and, based on a schedule perusal, eliminates the best chance for a victory in 2015.
“It’s obviously unbelievably disappointing,” Beaty said. “That was a very tough locker room to look into for my first day as a head football coach in Division I football.”
It could have been much worse. Falling behind 31-7 less than 3 minutes in the second quarter put this on track to be the most embarrassing of the Jayhawks’ 599 losses in 126 seasons.
But there Kansas was, seconds ticking down, a strong-legged kicker about to sprint on to the field for a long, but makeable field-goal attempt to force overtime and perhaps a storybook ending.
Instead, because of a bad center-quarterback exchange, there was no final opportunity, and the Jayhawks trudged off the field, a loser to a Football Championship Subdivision program that played with more discipline and poise than Kansas.
A loss to an FCS program also spoiled Turner Gill’s debut six years earlier, so Saturday’s feeling is familiar. But then, Kansas was a year removed from a second straight bowl victory and nobody foresaw the abyss Kansas football finds itself in today after the Gill and Charlie Weis regimes.
The personnel moves by Weis, mostly junior-college stocking, left Beaty with a program is such bad shape that Kansas and South Dakota State came off as a much more even battle. The Jayhawks are permitted 85 scholarships, the Jackrabbits of FCS, 63. Saturday, the teams were about even in that department.
And although Kansas suits up more players who were targets of recruiting tussles with majors, 15 players Saturday had one or no career starts for KU.
With no official betting line, this was an upset in perception only. Majors aren’t supposed to lose to Division I-AAs, even a solid program like South Dakota State with a coach in John Stiegelmeier starting his 19th season. The Jacks didn’t commit a turnover, committed three penalties to Kansas’ seven and didn’t blink at the end.
But there’s something to be said about Saturday not becoming a pie-in-the-face outcome for the Jayhawks.
At 31-7, Kansas dug in and started fighting back. Beaty’s fast-pace offense, which seemed to be pointing the Jayhawks toward a blowout loss, started to find a rhythm. KU logged 81 first-quarter yards and rolled up 496 after that.
The defense, which went from tackling and positions issues to whiffing issues early, made adjustments. Back the Jayhawks came. Guys like running back Ke’aun Kinner, tight end Kent Taylor and return specialist Ryan Schadler, in their first games for Kansas, started making plays.
So did quarterback Montell Cozart. He settled down after the rough start and showed why he won the starting job, finishing with with 291 passing yards and 94 rushing. Whatever Weis and the Jayhawks ran last season, Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens have done a superior job molding Cozart’s skills.
Now, they’ll all have to work on the quarterback’s decision-making and composure. His interception was horrible, and a lost fumble came after a hard hit. Those were the errors that gave South Dakota State short fields for touchdowns.
The fumble at the end speaks to a presence and command that Cozart must develop. He moved Kansas from the 41 to the Jacks’ 33 and got under center for the first time in the game to take the snap for a spike with about 7 seconds remaining.
“I felt like I was too relaxed,” Cozart said.
The ball wound up on the ground. So did Cozart, and time expired.
Relaxed is good but not all Cozart needed to feel here. In control, confident, taking every precaution to avoid the precise thing that occurred are what Kansas needs from its quarterback at that moment and the rest of the year if Kansas is to avoid a 0-12 season.