LAWRENCE — Peyton Bender made the best of several bad situations throughout Kansas football’s 26-23 overtime defeat Saturday to Nicholls State.
KU’s new-look offensive line struggled, surrendering six sacks and opening few holes in the running game. Center Alex Fontana misfired on numerous snaps, including an unintentional direct snap to running back Dom Williams on the first play of overtime that put the Jayhawks behind the eight ball. Star wide receiver Steven Sims dropped a would-be 37-yard touchdown reception and another long, catchable ball.
Despite those setbacks, Bender was a respectable 19 for 35 passing for 187 yards and two touchdowns, adding an uncharacteristic 30 yards on the ground. If the KU defense had gotten a stop on Nicholls’ final drive of regulation, Bender’s go-ahead touchdown strike to Kerr Johnson with 4:26 to play could’ve been a signature moment.
Instead, Bender didn’t get another chance to author such a moment. His reward for overcoming the adversity around him was a spot on the sideline spectating what may very well prove the Jayhawks’ most important -- and fateful -- play this season.
With the outcome of the most can’t-lose game of David Beaty’s tenure hanging in the balance, the fourth-year coach instead opted for a different signal-caller.
Sophomore Miles Kendrick, who hadn’t appeared since guiding a five-play drive midway through the second quarter, came in for the third-and-6 situation in overtime. A dual-threat but mostly run-first quarterback, Kendrick remained in the contest even after Nicholls took a timeout to adjust to his insertion into the game.
Kendrick was stuffed for a 3-yard loss on the play. Nicholls’ touchdown on its ensuing overtime possession bested the Jayhawks’ field goal. Beaty was dealt his second defeat to an FCS opponent.
How, then, did Bender feel watching the sequence unfold from the sidelines? Just last Tuesday, he admitted it can be “tough” rhythm-wise when a starting quarterback is pulled for a snap or a series.
If there was any disappointment Saturday, the senior didn’t reveal it, issuing a diplomatic response to that very question.
“I want to be out there, but you know, it’s a coaches’ decision,” Bender said. “They had a good play call, a run-pass option with Miles in there. Nicholls, they just played harder than us and they blew it up.”
Bender’s coach didn’t sense any disappointment from his starter.
“I don’t think it was tough on him at all, man. He’s a picture of professionalism when he’s with us on the sidelines,” Beaty said Monday on the Big 12 coaches teleconference. “I don’t think it affected him one bit. Matter of fact, he knew that there were some certain situations in the game plan where it would call for the rotation of our quarterback.
“You saw no signs (of disappointment), and of course we didn’t expect any. He’s a team guy and we never even thought about that. It never went through his mind. Obviously, he’s a competitor and he wants to play, but he also understands the game plan and how you attack defenses.”
Beaty defended his juggling of quarterbacks in his postgame remarks.
He said Kendrick would’ve had a solid ground gain on the doomed overtime play had his teammates correctly recognized twisting motion from the defense. He didn’t believe Kendrick’s second-quarter entry disrupted Bender’s rhythm. He reaffirmed that the team is “certainly going to continue to use Miles” and “find more ways to get him into the game,” backing up comments made last week.
Outside of a desire to see Bender get rid of the ball with more urgency on the plays that became sacks, Beaty issued a mostly positive review of his starting quarterback’s performance. Bender was more critical, both of himself and the offense as a whole.
“Just inconsistent,” Bender said. “Felt like we shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit tonight -- have a positive play and just go backwards, or drop a ball or something like that. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to execute better than what we did tonight if we want to get to where we’re going.”
Fontana’s issues delivering the ball were both unexpected and, in Bender’s mind, an anomaly.
“That wasn’t happening in practice through all fall camp,” Bender said. “I mean, Alex has been pretty consistent, so I don’t know if it was just his hand was wet or I don’t know what was going on, but it’s unacceptable. We’ve got to fix that. But I know Alex knows that. He was disappointed in himself and he’s going to get it right.”
Bender pulled from a similar low he experienced at Washington State in 2015 for inspiration on the Jayhawks’ current outlook.
That WSU squad lost its opener to FCS-level Portland State but recovered to win nine games, including its Sun Bowl appearance.
“The season just started. You have a lot of football left to play,” Bender said. “You could turn the season around to be one to remember if we go on to win some games and do what we think we can do. I think we just have to keep our heads on straight. I think going to every game ready to play, don’t take anything for granted and just learn from tonight and move forward.”
HOLANI RESOLUTION PENDING -- Beaty said the decision to play senior defensive tackle Isi Holani, arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in late July, in the team’s season opener came about because that situation remains unresolved.
“We should know something here pretty soon, but the due process system is working. It’s still in the hands of the due process system,” Beaty said. “So as soon as we find the results of that, which we feel like we have a pretty good idea of how that thing is going to turn out, if there is anything to be handed down, it’ll be handed down at that time.”
Holani recorded one tackle in the defeat.