Looking for its best start since 2009, the Kansas Football team dropped a close one in its conference opener, 29-24.
With its best crowd of the season, the Jayhawks welcomed the West Virginia Mountaineers, a team they hadn’t beaten in six years. Opening the game on defense, Kansas would look to fuel the home faithful from the get-go.
After pitching a shutout last weekend in the second half versus Boston College, the Jayhawks' defense would not be so fortunate on West Virginia’s first possession. Going 13 plays for 71 yards, the Mountaineers opened up the scoring on a three-yard touchdown burst from senior running back Kennedy McKoy.
Struggling to create space for the rushing attack that surmounted 329 yards on the ground the week prior, senior quarterback Carter Stanley and the offense were forced to look in another direction for production.
Failing to gash the West Virginia defense for the entirety of the first quarter, Kansas jumpstarted things in a hurry to open play in the second. Finding success through the air, the Jayhawks marched down the field and tied it up on a 28-yard strike from Stanley to junior wideout Kwamie Lassiter II. Despite not catching a single pass through the first two weeks, Lassiter had followed up with seven catches for 103 yards and a score in his last six quarters of play.
Back on the defensive front, the Jayhawks continued to suffocate the Mountaineers’ offense since the opening drive. Putting constant pressure on redshirt junior quarterback Austin Kendall, the Kansas front-seven amassed three sacks in the first half. The first came on a combination of seniors with defensive end Darrius Moragne and linebacker Najee Stevens-McKenzie bringing down Kendall. The second came from junior linebacker Dru Prox and the third from sophomore defensive tackle Caleb Sampson.
However, before the half, the Mountaineers drove into the heart of Kansas territory in less than a minute and cashed in on a 37-yard field goal. Jumping ahead for the second time in the afternoon, West Virginia took a 10-7 lead into the break.
Out of the half, the script used on the first drive of the game was implemented to begin play in the third quarter. Ranking last in the Big 12 with 79 rushing yards per game, West Virginia returned to its ground game that contributed to the score earlier. Gaining chunks of yardage with ease, senior running back Martell Pettaway capped it off the drive on a 23-yard dash into the end zone.
For the second straight week, Kansas would trail 17-7. However, on the ensuing Jayhawk possession, Liam Jones would cut the lead back down to a single score on a 23-yard field goal try.
Kansas football players were overcome with emotion after fans gave the team a standing ovation following a narrow loss to West Virginia Saturday night.
Though not in desperation mode, coach Les Miles and his staff decided to get tricky. Attempting to catch the Mountaineers off guard, the Jayhawks tried an onside kick. Ending up in the hands of redshirt freshman wideout Jamahl Horne, Kansas had come away with the ball. But with flags littered all over the field, it was determined that a kick-catch interference would negate the recovery.
Disappointed by the call, senior safety Bryce Torneden thought it was going to go Kansas' way.
"We've been preparing that for a long time," Torneden said. "On our sideline, we all thought it was successful."
With the Mountaineers taking over in Kansas territory, redshirt junior kicker Evan Staley tacked on three more to push it to 20-10.
Trying to give the sizable crowd a chance to erupt, the offense answered back in a flash. Starting at its own 25, Stanley unloaded for a 75-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Andrew Parchment for his first catch of the game. The play injected life back into the stadium.
Pleased with the play overall, Miles still regrets not trying the deep ball earlier.
"[West Virginia] put themselves in a position where we could take advantage of that throw," Miles said. "To be honest, we would've liked to start all those throws a little earlier in the game."
Unfortunately, as stout as the defense was last week, the key stop never quite came in the second half. At the 12:35 mark in the fourth quarter, Staley notched his third field goal of the game to extend the lead to 23-17.
The Jayhawks had their moment to storm back, but Stanley was picked off with Kansas trailing by six and less than 10 minutes to go. The Mountaineers proceeded to make it a two-score game on Pettaway’s second rushing touchdown.
Miles was impressed with how effective West Virginia was all game.
"I got to be honest with you. I didn't expect them to be this good," Miles said. "They just made plays."
Kansas did make it interesting in the final minutes. With just two minutes and 54 seconds left on the clock, Stanley drove down the field and hooked up with Parchment again for a three-yard touchdown pass. Pulling it within five, the Jayhawks attempted a second onside try. Coming up unsuccessful, the Mountaineers took over with 2:10 left in the game. Burning the final two timeouts, Stanley and the offense were gifted the ball back. However, distance and time was too much to overcome.
On the crowd, Stevens-McKenzie believes they have a lot to look forward to.
"They saw improvement. They saw a team that's fighting," Stevens-Mckenzie said. "They saw a team that fought all the way to the end."
Dropping to 2-2 on the season and 0-1 in conference play, Kansas will look to bounce back on the road next week against TCU. Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m.