LAWRENCE — My, how the mighty have fallen in the Heartland.
It was just six years ago that the Jayhawks went 12-1 and beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, capping a dream season under then head coach Mark Mangino. But the program started to slide over the next two years, Mangino was fired amid accusations of treating his players poorly and Turner Gill won just five games in two years before he was summarily let go.
Jayhawks head coach Charlie Weis has found the going no easier in his first two seasons. He won just one game last year, and the loss to the Red Raiders was the 22nd straight conference defeat for Kansas.
“One thing we’re going to do, we’re going to have to critically evaluate everything that happened,” Weis promised. “From coaching and play calling on one end, to performance on the other end. Then we’re going to have to go down to a nucleus of players that we believe will all give us the best chance at competing.”
The Jayhawks (2-2) had better do that in a hurry.
Their schedule doesn’t get any easier with a trip to TCU on tap, followed by games against Big 12 heavyweights Oklahoma and Baylor at home. Then the Jayhawks hit the road again for games against Texas and Oklahoma State, a stretch of five games in which they’ll be heavy underdogs.
“We’re trying to take that next step every single week. When we don’t take that step it’s very frustrating,” Jayhawks quarterback Jake Heaps said. “It’s tough to lose in this fashion and as a competitor it’ll eat at you.”
Yes, blowout losses will eat at you. So will giving games away.
That’s essentially what the Wildcats (2-3) did in a 33-29 loss to the Cowboys, turning the ball over five times and committing an uncharacteristic 12 penalties for 92 yards.
The loss left the Wildcats, who went 11-2 and lost in the Fiesta Bowl last year, without a Big 12 win after two games for the first time since 2004, before Kansas City head coach Bill Snyder hung up the headset for a brief retirement. Kansas State wound up finishing 4-7 that year, 2-6 in the conference.
“In our history, we have not been that kind of football team,” Snyder said after the loss in Stillwater, Okla. “We haven’t always been extremely good, but we haven’t turned the ball over and we haven’t gotten penalized and it has always given us a chance to win.”
The Wildcats still had a chance to win on Saturday, taking a 29-23 lead early in the fourth quarter on a touchdown run by Daniel Sams, who appeared to finally supplant Jake Waters as their starting quarterback. But the Cowboys answered with 10 straight points, and helped along by one of Sams’ three interceptions — he also lost a fumble — to come away with the victory.
“All week we focused on discipline. Obviously, we came out here and didn’t execute the way we wanted to and the way we talked about all week,” fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. “We had way too many mental mistakes and we need to stick to our game plan to do better from now on.”
In a hurry, too. The Wildcats welcome unbeaten Baylor to town on Saturday.
Kansas State might have to face the high-powered Bears without their two top wide receivers, too. Tramaine Thompson didn’t play against the Cowboys because of an undisclosed injury, and Tyler Lockett went down with a hamstring injury during the game.
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