As the weeks go by and the losses start to mount, the significance of Kansas holding on to win against both Duke and Iowa State becomes even more clear.
No matter how rough it gets or how many losses the Jayhawks take, those two wins, which both hung in the balance late in the fourth quarter, guaranteed that they will always enter their next game of the season needing just one more win to become bowl eligible.
No matter how the rest of the season goes, if KU can find a way to get that sixth win and play in a bowl game, it will go down as a huge development for the program.
Not only will it put a feel-good ending on the best season in more than a decade. It also will give these coaches more time to work with their players and the players more time in the system. When you’re rebuilding and trying to catch the rest of a physically tough conference, you can never have enough time.
Right now, though, the Jayhawks need to catch their breaths and that’s exactly what the schedule will allow them to do in the week ahead.
KU (5-3 overall, 2-3 Big 12) will be off next weekend and the bye week could not have come at a much better point in the season.
It’s not like vacation awaits. But this coaching staff and these players will get an opportunity to regroup and reevaluate what they’re doing as they head into the final four games of the 2022 season.
Here’s a quick look at the three biggest ways KU can use the bye week to its advantage.
• Get healthy
This is by far the biggest thing the Jayhawks can do to increase their chances in the weeks ahead.
Whether you’re talking about getting injured starting quarterback Jalon Daniels back after the bye week or addressing varying degrees of injuries to a host of other players, including two along the offensive line and a big one in the secondary, KU needs its full roster to go into these Big 12 battles with a chance to win.
Give KU credit. Injuries were a factor in each of their losses and yet Lance Leipold’s team dug deep and found a way to make all three of them competitive right down to the wire. That’s after letting Oklahoma and Baylor build monster leads.
Box Score: Baylor 35, KU 23 ( .PDF )
So, the thinking here goes, maybe if KU is healthy those early deficits aren’t quite as big and those late comeback efforts are not as daunting.
• Fix the run D
This is the biggest X’s and O’s issue the Jayhawks are currently facing. By a mile. And it’s hard to picture KU winning another game if it doesn’t get fixed.
Baylor on Saturday ran for 273 yards on 57 carries, good for nearly five yards a pop. A week earlier, Oklahoma ran for 298 yards on 57 carries, good for 5.2 yards per carry. But it’s not just the yardage totals that have been a problem. KU’s opponents are getting way too many easy yards in predictable running situations and the holes they’re running through are often pretty massive.
KU’s run defense was one of its strengths early in the season, but that has not been the case in the heart of Big 12 play. Part of that is the jump in talent level. But Kansas has to find a way to address it if it wants to crack the win column again.
The Jayhawks were marginally better in the second half on Saturday, and they made a few key run stops that helped them get back into the game. But when they needed to step up the most, Baylor ripped off six running plays for 55 yards (9.2 per carry) on the game-clinching drive late in the fourth quarter. And that was your ballgame.
The defense, as a whole, has done enough to keep the Jayhawks in games, largely because of the offense’s quick-strike capabilities and KU’s ability to force turnovers. They got three on Saturday. But the offense can’t be expected to keep up game after game, especially when it’s dealing with injuries of its own.
• Rediscover the swagger
There’s a chance it returned after the defensive play by Jereme Robinson early in the second half. KU certainly got an important lift in Saturday’s game from the Robinson’s tremendous individual effort. And it’s plays like that — and the Jayhawks’ expecting to make them — that were a big part of the story of their 5-0 start.
With Baylor driving, looking to go up 35-3, Robinson stripped Baylor QB Blake Shapen, fought him off to recover the loose ball, scooped it up in the open field and nearly scored, returning it all the way to the BU 9-yard line. Three plays later, the Jayhawks were in the end zone and, one quarter later, KU had trimmed Baylor’s lead down to 28-23 with 6:29 to play.
It’s fair to think that a three-game losing streak, after climbing so high early in the season, would rattle the confidence of any team. But this team has enough talent and enough play makers — veterans even — to play with the confidence and swagger we saw early in the season. That’s where they miss Daniels the most, but they still should be able to deliver with or without him.
Getting back to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium for their Nov. 5 game against Oklahoma State will help. And getting healthy will, too.
This team still has four cracks at getting that sixth win and if their heart and effort in the past two losses have shown us anything, it’s that the Jayhawks will continue to believe they’ll get the job done until they’re out of chances.