LAWRENCE, Kan. — For Jayhawks fans, Saturday’s football defeat stung not nearly so much as losing top-10 point guard Immanuel Quickley to John Calipari the night before.
And come Sunday, citizens of Rock Chalk Nation will pause more intently for the commitment decision of 6-foot-10 big man David McCormack than they did for what Khalil Herbert accomplished inside Memorial Stadium.
Herbert’s 291 yards rushing surpassed by 8 yards the best game Gale Sayers ever enjoyed at Kansas, which invites the punchline that Kansas seemingly hasn’t enjoyed much about football since Gale Sayers.
While KU football has long been rendered trivial, the defense that tried (mostly) in vain to tackle Herbert emerged with some trivia of its own. Nine times in the Mountaineers’ century-plus history, they had allowed 200-yard rushers in a game — along with 199 to a guy named Tony Dorsett — and on all such occasions West Virginia had lost.
Yet this time WVU won 56-34, an outcome as cushiony at the end as it was mortifying in the middle.
Third quarter, for example. WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson lacked his best cornerback (Mike Daniels), his top blitzer (Kyzir White) and White’s backup (Marvin Gross) — fresh injuries to exacerbate the absences of Toyous Avery and David Long.
“It’s an eight-point game,” Gibson said, “and we’ve got all our 2s out there.”
As if playing four freshmen on a critical series wasn’t worrisome enough, Elijah Battle, one of Gibson’s seniors, pushed a receiver out of bounds and gave Kansas the ball near midfield. The Jayhawks already had scored 17 straight points to pull within 35-27, and now they were one Herbert handoff away from the equalizer.
With such a raw defense forcing Gibson to simplify his calls, up rose a raw, first-year nose guard to clog the middle. Lamonte McDougle stuffed Herbert on first down, and when two more incompletions followed, the Jayhawks punted away the momentum.
Never again would they possess the ball with an opportunity to tie.
McDougle’s encore came at 49-34, on a blind-side sack that squirted the ball out of Peyton Bender’s cocked right arm. Fellow freshman Dylan Tonkery recovered, and two plays later West Virginia made it a three-possession game.
“The good news is we won,” Gibson said. “The bad news is if we don’t get healthy we’re going to have some growing pains. We’ll probably have to have our meetings tomorrow in the training room.”
Something for players to ponder during treatment: Kansas produced three plays of 60-plus yards Saturday after generating only one in its opening three games.
Among 564 yards overall, KU had 367 rushing and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Perish the thought of how high the numbers might climb against offenses from Oklahoma or Oklahoma State or, in two weeks, TCU.
West Virginia can only hope its regulars will be upright when the time arrives.
“I’m not happy about 300 yards rushing, but if you get your starters back it would probably make a difference,” said head coach Dana Holgorsen. “We have to get our main guys back if we want to not have games like this. I don’t think we’re good enough to where we can play two- and three-deep guys and stone people.”
At least they were good enough this time, albeit against a program soon to be back-burnered by Late Night in the Phog. West Virginia needn’t rush so frantically into its basketball frenzy, not when football fortunes remain at stake.