LAWRENCE — A crunch-time scramble by a quarterback not known for his mobility. A healthy dose of “Pooka magic.” A butt fumble.
Kansas football needed all of these to secure Saturday’s upset victory, and even then, the margin between uplifting win and what would’ve been one of most deflating defeats in program history all boiled down to one final, agonizing second.
The second ticked off, though, and the celebration was on.
KU 27, TCU 26.
“It’s awesome for everybody,” KU’s fifth-year senior linebacker Joe Dineen said. “All the stuff we’ve gone through over the years, what people have said, you know, the naysayers, the haters, whatever you want to call them — it’s pretty cool to get a win.”
Saturday’s victory — KU’s first in conference since a 24-21 overtime outcome over Texas on Nov. 19, 2016 — boiled down to five fourth-quarter plays, really.
True freshman running back Pooka Williams’ electrifying 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown gave the Jayhawks the lead for good, capping a drive extended on a 12-yard scramble by senior quarterback Peyton Bender on a third-and-11 situation.
Becoming a signature seven games into Williams’ college career, the exciting scoring play was not without controversy. Williams juked safety Trevon Moehrig-Woodard at the 30-yard line, stiff armed safety Vernon Scott at the 3, but as he stretched the ball over the goal line, Williams was stripped of possession by cornerback Jeff Gladney.
The bang-bang play was ruled a touchdown on the field and the call stood after a review, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawk sideline was a tension-free zone in the moments between.
“Yeah, quite a few (nerves),” admitted fourth-year coach David Beaty, who improved to 2-30 against Big 12 opponents and 6-38 overall. ”... (Williams) is a young guy. He’s a freshman. And as unbelievable as a player he is, he’s human. Fortunately for us it stood, and I don’t know exactly where everything else went, but from that standpoint, it was a big play.”
The TCU offense responded with ease, and set up with a first-and-goal from the KU 9-yard line, the Horned Frogs were poised to at least tie the contest and perhaps take the lead.
Luck, though, smiled on a KU program short on good fortunes over the last decade. Running back Darius Anderson lost possession of the ball after running into offensive lineman Austin Myers — yes, a “butt fumble” — allowing KU’s Keyshaun Simmons to recover with 71 seconds left.
Though Anderson was originally ruled down by contact, the Jayhawk defenders didn’t wait for the completion of the official review to begin their celebration. Junior safety Bryce Torneden emphatically kicked his leg and let out a scream. Upon seeing the replay on the video board, Dineen performed a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump — “When that ball came out, I was so excited, I didn’t know what to do with my hands,” Dineen joked.
“Breaks go different ways. They seem to come in splurges here and there,” said first-year athletic director Jeff Long of the fortuitous fumble recovery. “It was great for us, a great turnover for us to get. ... It’s obviously exciting for the young men.”
From there, the Jayhawks (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) attempted to run off the clock. But facing a fourth-down play with seven seconds left, the team opted to have Bender kill time and throw a pass out of the back of the end zone, an intentional safety Beaty hoped would run off the remainder of the clock.
It didn’t. Bender’s throw hit a canopy, killing the play with one second on the clock. Liam Jones’ free kickoff traveled just 13 yards to the KU 33-yard line, but TCU (3-5, 1-4) freshman safety La’Kendrick Van Zandt broke his head coach’s repeated orders by attempting the return rather than downing the ball immediately and giving TCU kicker Jonathan Song a shot at an improbable game-winning 50-yard field goal.
“Everybody was told (to) fall on the ball. Then the clock doesn’t start and you’ve got a chance to kick the field goal,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “Everybody was told fall on the ball. That’s what I told them in the locker room. Again, everybody was told fall on the ball. If you fall on the ball, you’ve got one second.
“On the sideline, everybody was told fall on the ball. A redshirt freshman caught it. Everybody was told fall on the ball. Let me repeat that again: Everybody was told fall on the ball.”
Again, just to be clear, Van Zandt didn’t fall on the ball.
The game ended, and a couple hundred of the 15,069 in attendance streamed onto the field to celebrate the upset victory with the Jayhawks, who were 13-point underdogs in the matchup — “It was kind of a blur, but it was cool. A lot of selfies,” said Dineen, who had a game-high 13 tackles.
Later, roars emanating from the locker room rattled throughout Anderson Family Football Complex, with players engaging in an impromptu dance circle. Junior defensive tackle Codey Cole busted out a “churn the butter” move.
Williams finished with seven catches for 102 yards and a pair of touchdowns, totaling 137 yards from scrimmage. Bender, handling a game from start to finish for the second straight week, was 19-for-29 passing for 249 yards with two touchdown tosses. Senior linebacker Keith Loneker’s third-quarter interception gave the Jayhawk defense a pair of takeaways in the contest, pushing its nation-leading total to 23 turnovers gained.
KU continues its conference slate with an 11 a.m. Nov. 3 contest against Iowa State at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. For at least a little longer, though, Beaty will relish Saturday’s triumph, though he insisted the players and fans will enjoy the outcome more than he will.
“For me, as a coach, I don’t get to live in that world. I get to live in the job at hand, right?” Beaty said. “There’s emotions that are attached to the people you care about particularly the players who have taken—”
Beaty paused momentarily, choking up during his answer.
“You know, they’ve taken some tough hits along the way I’m not sure many kids can handle,” Beaty continued. “But I’ve said it before: The best thing about our team is the kids in that room, man. They are really good men. Really good men. They keep coming back. They don’t let the world beat them down.”