Week 3: Houston
Praise Be to the Sacrificial Patty
We are in uncharted waters today. I don’t know how to talk about Kansas Football if I’m not whining. I don’t know how to be positive about this team unless it’s in a purely theoretical light. I’ve never tried to do this before, I’ve never tried to write about a winning football team at the University of Kansas before.
I’ll be happy to start each of these posts, until the Jayhawks take their first loss, by stating how long it’s been since we’ve seen success of this sort from this program. I take great pleasure in this as I was a student at KU during the depths of the infamous road losing streak (2009-2018) and the longer conference losing streak (2008-2021) and I started noticing how that statistic would make its way into every preview and postgame recap about the Jayhawks, which I read each week for some reason. I’ve probably read the sentence “Kansas has not won a road game since defeating UTEP on September 12th, 2009” and “Kansas has not won a Big XII road game since defeating Iowa State 35-33 on October 4th, 2008” hundreds of times in my life, so I’m happy to point out which streaks, streaks growing more and more esoteric, many of which I can come up with off the top of the dome, have fallen this week: They’re 3-0 for the first time since 2009. They received AP and Coaches Poll votes for the first time since 2009. They’ve had two straight road wins for the first time since 2007. They’ve scored 48 or more points in each of the first three games, they’ve only done that once before, in three consecutive games wrapping from the end of 1991 to the beginning of 1992 (That wasn’t off the top of the dome, credit the CFB Reference Play Index for that one).
The Jayhawks are ahead of schedule. I wrote last week about how the scope of this whole project was changed during that West Virginia game, but if asked before the season, I wouldn’t have been that surprised by the Jayhawks getting a win in Morgantown given Neal Brown’s relative defensive futility. I didn’t think it’d happen, but if Kansas was going to win any conference game this year, West Virginia would’ve been my first guess. 2-0 was not inconceivable, I suppose I’m saying. That shift in scope wouldn’t have been so far outside of my original conception of possibilities for the season. It would’ve shifted my expectation from speculative optimism tethered to positive individual and unit-level performances, really with an eye towards what the team might be going into the 2023 season to more grounded optimism tethered to full-team performances. I originally imagined myself going into Memorial Stadium in the latter half of the season hoping that the team could keep games close and look relatively competent, and after West Virginia, I expected to enter those games with an honest belief that the team might win. Those are relatively small changes in scope, all things considered, and not necessarily a significant change in terms of my predicted record. I was still fully on the ‘Happy With 4-8’ train last week.
But to board that train now would require me being happy with a 1-8 record over the latter three quarters of the season, and I don’t foresee that being okay with me now. I don’t foresee that being all that realistic now, after what the Jayhawks did to Houston on Saturday. I didn’t foresee trying to figure out how to write about a winner during this project!
Houston finished last year with twelve wins. According to SP+, they were the third best team out of the Group of Five conferences in 2021 (behind Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina)1. Houston is and has been since their move to the American Athletic Conference in the early 2010s, among the best programs in their class, and starting next year, they’ll be in the Big XII. KU tends to schedule games against ambitious G5 teams, and they tend to lose those games: Dave Doeren’s Northern Illinois in 2012 (12-2, MAC Champion, Orange Bowl berth), Rice in 2013 (10-4, Conference USA Champion), Justin Fuente’s Memphis in 2015 (9-4), Frank Solich’s Ohio in 2016 (8-6, MAC East Champion) and 17 (9-4), and most recently, Jamey Chadwell’s emerging Coastal Carolina team (2020 Sun Belt Champion, 22-3 record over the past two seasons). They tend to lose those games badly, too. Those games tend to be statement wins for those programs, they get to dominate an unworthy power conference team and establish themselves as more deserving of that stature.
Houston was in a unique position heading into this season, as they’re set to enter the Big XII conference next year. They scheduled two of their future Big XII opponents, Texas Tech and Kansas, in non-conference play this year, and they got both of them at the right time, at least theoretically, after the two of them finished at the bottom of the conference last year. Starting with wins over both of them could set them up well for their first Big XII season in 2023. At the beginning of this year, I really didn’t expect Kansas to hang with Houston, primarily because I expected Houston to be a far higher quality team than Kansas in most senses, but also because I’ve seen KU get rocked by a good G5 team so many times that I’ve come to expect it. Even going into last week, after the West Virginia win, I more or less expected the Jayhawks to lose this game. If you want proof of that statement, here is the Reddit comment in which I say as much (more on the main point of that comment in a later post). That is not what happened.
I again watched from Ben’s living room this week. We again contemplated the outdoor setup but the heat was too much and we need to put further research and design efforts into the logistics of getting power to a television outside. The culinary efforts, paradoxically, were brought in-house2 and also moved outside3 for this week. I missed the first ten minutes of the game, give or take, helping Ben prepare the charcoal for the grill, which turned out to be a good thing as the Jayhawks again raced out to a 14-0 deficit this week.
It strikes me as I write this that that was the first time I’ve partaken in that sort of ritual, a barbecue with multiple friends for a watch party for a KU football game, in years. I can remember only hosting one KU away game watch party during my time as a student. Otherwise, we mostly just ignored what was going on during away games, having been too closely exposed to KU football during the home games to desire seeing any more.
I can’t say that, at that point, I was taking comfort in acknowledging the parallels from the West Virginia game. SP+ last week (which is primarily what I consult for anything analytical in college football) listed Houston’s defense as superior to West Virginia’s by a decent margin (WV’s was ranked 76th, Houston’s 58th), so I figured the climb back would be tougher for KU. If the Jayhawks were going to make it competitive, it’d be harder to do against Houston than it was against West Virginia. I can, however, say that I was not in any sort of despair mode when I entered and saw the score. I wasn’t shocked by the scoreline, but I also didn’t consider it completely out of the realm of feasibility that the Jayhawks could get back in it over the course of the game. At this point I’m willing to believe anything as feasible with this Kansas team.
We’d also personally made some crucial sacrifices which I believe had some impact on the game’s outcome. I had brought a six pack of Miller High Life cans with me, one of which dropped out of the little plastic holder thing onto the street as I carried it from my car to his house. The can did not break fully, but a good amount of it foamed out onto the lawn as I opened it due to the jostling, and I consider that something of a sacrifice. The more significant sacrament was a full burger patty, which slipped between the metal bars of the grill and onto the hot charcoals beneath, rendering it well-done but untouchable. If I have my timelines right, the patty dropped upon the coals right before I came outside to update him on Houston taking a fourteen-zero lead. Immediately following the sacrifice, Kansas went on a 42-7 run, starting with Jalon Daniels’ touchdown run at the end of the first quarter and ending a half-hour later with the end of the third quarter.
My opinion regarding the relationship between correlation and causation is well documented. I believe in my heart that this burger patty sacrificed itself for the Kansas Jayhawks, and they honored its legacy by systematically dismantling the Houston Cougars henceforth. There was a KU touchdown, followed by an interception, followed by another KU touchdown to tie the game, followed by a forced punt, followed by what appeared to be an easy scoring drive for the Jayhawks to take the lead in the second quarter, followed by a lightning delay.
The lightning delay gave us ample opportunity to check in on the Kansas State Wildcats, who were busy getting upset at home by the fighting Green Wave of Tulane. I’ve watched a lot of Green Wave football over the past years, I’d adopted them as something of a secondary team around 2017, which I know is a weird sentence, but I can explain: I posit that there is nothing worse in football than an inept Air Raid offense. There are plenty of offensive schemes that are horrible to experience when poorly performed. My high school’s coach used an offensive scheme that amounted to, effectively, handing the ball to the running back up the middle, typically on all three downs regardless of the situation or by how many points the team was trailing. This was unfortunate to watch from the band, and it resulted in a fair number of losses, but if nothing else, the consistent two-yard runs up the middle kept the goddamn clock moving.
When David Beaty took over in 2015, he and offensive coordinators Rob Likens and Doug Meacham instituted a pass-first Air Raid scheme on offense. If run well, the Air Raid can be an exciting, dynamic, and fast-paced offensive form which can utilize the defense’s fatigue and preparation against them. If run the way that Kansas did during the Beaty era, it manifests as three incompletions and a punt on most drives, which only takes up about thirty seconds of game time, before we give the ball back to the other team, who scores quickly on our already outmatched but now fatigued defense, putting our offense back on the field, who, now trailing, has to keep throwing passes, which fall incomplete, which stop the clock, and then we punt after another three-and-out which only took up 25 seconds of game clock. This would only be exacerbated as our defense got further fatigued and the opposing coach put out their second string and continued running the score up to see what the players who didn’t get a lot of playing time could do against the Jayhawks. This was a recipe not just for blowouts, but for four to five hour long blowouts. I was in the marching band, so I wasn’t allowed to leave, so each Saturday was spent getting sunburnt and watching four hours of incompletions and touchdowns given up.
A normal person would develop a complete hatred for football, but I turned it into an appreciation for a different sort of football: any sort of football where they kept the ball on the damn ground. I adopted something of a Darrell Royal-inspired philosophy: “three things can happen when you pass the football, and two of them are bad.” I started watching the few remaining option-run teams in FBS, which were, at the time, the three service academies, Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson, Georgia Southern under Chad Lunsford, and Tulane under Willie Fritz. In 2018, I enrolled in graduate school at San Diego State University, which ran a classically old-school Rocky Long run-first offense, nearly identical to my high school’s except this one worked really well. I’d go to games at the now demolished Qualcomm Stadium just to appreciate the run plays. They play Air Force in-conference and I sat through the whole thing by myself just to cleanse myself and appreciate a game that moved at a reasonable rate.
This is part of the reason, personally, whenever the KU job opens up, the first two names I say that I hope the school pursues are Willie Fritz and Troy Calhoun.4 I was actually quite excited to see Tulane face K-State, as the Wildcats have a run-first (some may say run-only) quarterback and they build their offense out of option run plays, and whenever two option-heavy teams play one another, the result gets weird as they can’t catch the other defense quite as off-guard as they normally might (this is why I’d always recommend watching the inter-service academy games, all three adapt their offenses to try to catch the opponent off-guard so you get some really dynamic and interesting football). In this game, both defenses were far too prepared for one another and it ended up something of a beautiful slog of the favorite getting beaten at their own game and their crowd becoming more and more anxious as it set in what was happening to them. I don’t have that much antipathy for Kansas State unless they’re against us, generally I’d like for both teams to be good and my team to win head to head, but it fit almost too well that Tulane’s game-sealing fourth-down conversion happened right before the lightning delay ended and we went back to the Jayhawks.
As previously stated, the lead that KU took on that drive never faltered, and never really even wavered. The Jayhawks were firmly in control by the middle of the third quarter, up twenty-one at one point. They dominated this game after those early stumbles. Unlike how I felt to a certain extent at the end of the West Virginia game last week, I can’t say that the Jayhawks got away with anything on Saturday. This was not a fluke. They definitely capitalized on a few fumbles and bad passes, but it wasn’t like the stars aligned for the Jayhawks in Houston on Saturday. The better team simply came out on top.
The five of us reacted to every touchdown with excitement, but we stopped living and dying with every play after KU took a three-touchdown lead in the third. It was genuinely abnormal, it was the sort of security I appreciated coming from the opener against Tennessee Tech for what felt like the first time in a very long while, but this was against Houston on the road. For lack of a better term, we collectively succumbed to a sort of boredom in the third quarter, and we started passing around this vintage erotica magazine from the seventies that Ben had found in a box on the street5. The game was in the damn bag at that point.
The Kansas Jayhawks were so good on the road Saturday that it stopped being all that interesting. This is something that most fanbases experience relatively commonly, but I haven’t in a long while. This whole thing’s starting to veer into waters I’m unprepared to sail. I have little experience writing about ambitions or a team’s Top 25 ranking or the potential of Lee Corso putting on the Big Jay head in Lawrence, as apparently was a feasibility for the upcoming game against a similarly undefeated Duke team.
My friend Mike had to buy a ticket for the Duke game before the game ended on Saturday, as the prices kept coming up. Mike got into a game for free last year because the athletics department put out a statement that they’d opened the gates and anyone could get into the Oklahoma game for free if they wanted. We really may be at the precipice of something incredible here. I don’t know how this goes, I don’t even want to predict anything anymore. I know I’ll be there for it.
It’s very nice to type that sentence with a sense of anticipatory excitement beneath, rather than the usual bitter resignation.
I expect a big crowd for the game against Duke next week. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised to see the game sell out, and I’m a little worried about how the stadium operations will hold up to a crowd the size of which the stadium rarely sees. I know I’m planning my meals and drinks and ideally my bathroom breaks to precede and succeed the game because I’m assuming there will be some growing pains in effect this weekend. But, otherwise, I’m excited. I’m going to get to see Memorial Stadium with an energy I haven’t seen since my youth this Saturday and I cannot wait to be there.
Group of Five refers to the five “Non-Power” conferences in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision: American Athletic, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American, and Conference USA.
We’d previously outsourced them to Domino’s
Cooked on an outdoor grill
and they will be again when the job inevitably comes open again this fall but again more on that in a post to follow
It is a fascinating artifact of the era, there’s a real artistry on the behalf of both the models and the photographers, a lot of subtlety and taste to that particular magazine. I believe it was called something excessively straightforward like “Sexy Models” or something like that, look it up if you get the chance. Just put that phrase into Google. I’m sure you’ll get something.
BONUS IMAGE: BEN AT THE GRILL
Ben at the Grill!