Of course, I must gush about my 5-0 Jayhawks. I hold no grudge against those who withheld judgement until KU “played somebody.” That was certainly fair. In fact, I was doing it myself, although I remained cautiously optimistic going into Saturday’s game at K-State. I just had no idea how we would match-up with a team that just waxed Texas in Austin after four weeks of cream-filled pastries.
So the game was on here, which was fun. I about scared the crap out of poor C. when Dexton Fields raced 30 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Then, I nearly dropped her from my lap, appropriately enough, after Derek Fine let a sure touchdown bounce off of his hands a few moments later. But overall, it was fun, and that’s not something we KU fans get to say much during football season.
In the glow after the game, several things occurred to me. First, the change at offensive coordinator in the off-season was a great move. Actually doing things to confuse the defense instead of running the same ten plays out of the same five sets? How radical! Is that Urban Meyer on the sideline, calling all those wacky plays? Second, whether it’s the OC change, or some change with Mark Mangino, the in-game decision making seems much better this year. KU lost six games last year. In four of those, they had the lead in the fourth quarter. In each of those four games, the loss was augmented by some coaching decisions that were curious at best and downright dreadful at worst. I totally disagreed with the decision to go for it on 4th and one in the fourth quarter rather than taking the cheap three points, but I understood it. My thoughts may have been clouded by Glen Mason refusing to kick field goals in Manhattan in 1991 and 1993 and losing each game by less than three points. Not that I remember and remain bitter about stuff like that or anything.
What I appreciated most is that Mark Mangino may have finally built what I’ve always wanted out of KU’s football program: the ability to compete in every game. Hey, I grew up going to games in the 80s when, with a few exceptions, KU was generally a huge underdog every Saturday. My goals are fairly modest. By the time I got to college, Mason was changing things, and we even had a few good years in there. But it seemed like we always had a valley coming right after the peak. The Terry Allen years nearly destroyed the program. I’ve admired what Mangino did in getting three bowl eligible teams in four years, but I wondered, after last year, if he was the man to take the program to the next level: where six wins are expected rather than hoped for, and a few breaks can get you playing in a bowl game people have actually heard of.
On Saturday, perhaps for the first time in my life as a KU football fan, I saw a team that was solid at every single position. Maybe not spectacular across the board, but there didn’t seem to be any guys you absolutely did not want near the ball. Too often we’ve either had a great defense and a shitty offense, vice versa, or a few really good players mixed in with some guys who should have been playing at a D2 school. Mangino has been criticized some for not getting huge wins in recruiting. While his methodology may be different, he strikes me as a college football version of Billy Beane. No, he’s not paying his players less than his competitors! Rather, he understands what he needs at each position on his team, and finds guys who can fill those roles. Whether they are four-star recruits or two doesn’t matter, as long as they’re willing to work hard and commit to the team’s goals. Where Glen Mason gambled on blue chippers that were academic question marks (Dana Stubblefield, Gilbert Brown, June Henley, and LT Levine to name three) and elite programs backed away from was a high-risk, high-reward strategy, Mangino’s seems far more stable in the long-run. I was struck Saturday by how young this year’s team is. Although next year’s schedule is brutal (A trip to South Florida plus games with OU, Texas, and Texas Tech), this isn’t a team that is going to be gone because of graduation after this season.
I know there’s a lot of football to be played. It would be very-KU to crap the bed against Baylor at home next week. But for now, we can revel in the fact we’re undefeated, ranked, a win away from bowl eligibility in early October, and have a favorable schedule going forward. Suddenly, it feels a lot like 1995, that heady year when amazing things happened and for a couple months, we messed around in and near the top ten.
Mangino’s taken a lot of shit for his physical appearance, blow-ups, and propensity to blow games in the fourth quarter. I think he deserves some credit for creating a plan that creates a winning program, not just an occasional winning season.
And now KU and MU fans get to ponder whether we root for each other for the next six weeks so that the season-ending battle at Arrowhead is about a whole lot more than just bragging rights.