Week 8: Baylor
You know we’ve never won in Waco?
The Kansas Jayhawks and Baylor Bears have been conference-mates since 1996, 27 seasons and counting, and KU has never pulled off a win in Waco. Baylor, for about its first decade in the Big XII, was the worst football program in the conference. They had a 29 game in-conference losing streak that spanned from 1998 to 2002 – Longer than any in-conference losing streak the Jayhawks had in the 2010s (we got close with a 26 game losing streak between the win over Colorado in 2010 to the win over West Virginia in 2013) – but their streak was bookended with home wins over the Jayhawks. KU used to only make a trip to Waco every four years during the old North and South era, and they lost most of them closely: 31-24 in 1998, 35-32 in 2002, 36-35 in 2006 (off of an eighteen point fourth-quarter comeback).
Baylor used to be sort of a measuring stick for the Jayhawks, a partner at the bottom of the conference standings each year, we’d be sixth in the north, they’d be sixth in the south. Our last win over Baylor came in 2007 in Lawrence, which was uncoincidentally the last time the two schools met before Art Briles took the Baylor job. Baylor - with Robert Griffin III and Josh Gordon – beat KU 55-7 in Waco in 2010, and they’ve dominated in Waco ever since. The closest game KU had played against the Bears since that game was a 19 point, 26-7 loss in 2018, but nearly every other game between KU and Baylor at McLane since the end of the Mangino era has been at least a four touchdown blowout. In a sense, this Saturday’s 12 point loss was evident of progress.
It is unfortunate, writing those words, and realizing that I’m thinking about progress and close losses and moral victories again like I did back in college. I try to remember that this would’ve been among the games I felt the best about during my time in college, a less than two touchdown loss in which the Jayhawks fought their way back from a significant deficit, a game in which the Jayhawks trailed only by five at one point in the fourth quarter to a team they weren’t supposed to beat. I notice that I’m not slipping back into that sort of thing, either. I lamented my inability to lapse back into the pure bitterness of youth last week, but I’m finding that I don’t miss how eagerly I played Pangloss during my days as a student.
I could lapse into paragraph upon paragraph of cliché to define my feelings now: This team does not quit, this team does not beat themselves, despite poor injury luck and a recruiting deficit they play with heart and soul and fight to stay in it every weekend. People aren’t seeing the way that they fight, just checking the box score and declaring us dead, et cetera, et cetera.
We are eight games in, two-thirds of the way through the season, and I feel confident that there are trends all over the spectrum of benefit which can be sussed out to define this team. They’ve had an issue with starting poorly – in eight games, they’ve scored only once on an opening drive. The run defense has struggled – Oklahoma’s Eric Gray and Baylor’s Richard Reese both set season highs for rushing yards against KU. The pass defense has struggled at times as well - West Virginia’s J.T. Daniels, Duke’s Riley Leonard, and Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel each set or matched season-highs for passing yards against KU1, and TCU’s Quentin Johnson had the most receptions (14) of any player in Big XII play this season when they met KU. The offense has regressed, the 48.5 average point total of the first four games giving way to a 27.5 average point total in these last four. They’ve suffered with injuries, losing the #1 running back, quarterback, cornerback, and now interior defensive lineman for multiple games, a list of injuries which uncoincidentally started racking up names right as the recent losing skid began.
But even as they’ve regained the losing form of recent, there are still positives to be gleaned: The average margin of loss in this three-game skid is only 9.6 points, a significant drop from last season’s average margin of loss of 26.1 points. They’ve shown resiliency even with deficits this year in a way they hadn’t last year. Against Baylor, they managed to whittle away a 25 point deficit down to a 5 point deficit in the fourth. In 2021, they fell behind by 25 points in six games and never managed to cut the deficit to anything smaller than that at the game’s end. There is absolutely a different mentality surrounding the team that hasn’t been there in a long while. They’re not getting blown out when they could be, they’re not giving up when they could be.
We never flipped the TV away from the KU game last Saturday. Even with the poor early performance (which netted a rare double-hat throw from both Mike and I), we didn’t feel like we could give up on this team. When I was with the band, we used to joke in the stands about farcical, impossible situations in which the Jayhawks might find a way back into a far-gone game. A few defensive stops, a bribed ref, an earthquake and a super-mega touchdown (which is more valuable than both the regular touchdown and the mega touchdown but less dangerous to execute than the ultra-super-mega touchdown) and the boys might cut that 35 point halftime deficit down to a more manageable eleven or ten point deficit by the game’s end.
I have no idea what to expect of the season’s remaining four games. I’m not specifically optimistic and I’m growing unconfident in the prospects of making a bowl game at this point with the mounting injuries and defensive ineptitude. It is entirely possible that this team loses out, never looks particularly bad, and ends the year simultaneously with their best record in twelve seasons and on a seven-game losing streak. It is possible that I leave this year both highly disappointed and pleasantly surprised, disappointed because of the manner in which it turned out but pleasantly surprised that the team overshot my expectations.
I am not worried about it, though. I’ll be disappointed at this outcome, if it comes to pass, but I won’t fall into vein-popping, couch-cushion-tossing rage because of it, nor will I succumb to melodramatic despair. Perhaps I should let myself do so. I will say that I desperately want this team to make a bowl game. I haven’t had the experience of attending one in seventeen years and I don’t care where it is, Frisco or Fort Worth or Shreveport or Memphis, I’ve let myself start to believe that it is a possibility, and if it turns out not to be, then I will be crushed. I might make a point to let it absolutely crush me if that happens. I’m talking tears and beating my fists against the floor and everything. We have a week to stew on it and four more games to find an answer.
Leonard had four more passing yards against Temple than he did against KU, for technical accuracy’s sake, and TCU’s Max Duggan’s 308-yard performance against KU he only surpassed in their Week 2 game against Tarleton State in which he threw for 380 yards
Squirrel I saw outside Ben’s house after the game