The Kansas Jayhawks hadn’t beaten a top-25 team since 2010 entering their game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Saturday. They hadn’t reached bowl eligibility since 2008, and they hadn’t even beaten the Cowboys since 2007.
Every one of those streaks was snapped this weekend, though, when a historic performance by sophomore running back Devin Neal and four takeaways by the defense led KU to a 37-16 win, their sixth of the season.
In the program’s second season under coach Lance Leipold, it will go bowling for the first time in 14 years.
Leipold said this is a special win for Kansas in general, especially for the players who stuck with it through the bad years.
“I’m really proud of them, I’m happy for them,” Leipold said, “they persevered, they stayed with this program.”
Leading up to the game, the prevailing storyline was each team’s respective quarterback situation. Junior quarterback Jalon Daniels was back at practice this week for the Jayhawks, but it was senior Jason Bean who got the call to start again this week. Meanwhile, the Cowboys pressed freshman Garret Rangel into service due to lingering injuries for usual starter Spencer Sanders.
But for all the talk about quarterbacks leading up to kickoff, it was a running back who stole the show at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
After an interception by KU sophomore cornerback Cobee Bryant to end OSU’s first possession, Neal got the scoring started with a 31-yard touchdown run, his seventh rushing score of the year. On the opening Jayhawks drive, the Lawrence native toted the ball twice for 55 yards.
That was just the beginning for KU’s workhorse, who had set a new career high in rushing yards by halftime. He went into the break with 146 yards on the ground; his previous career high for a single game was 143 yards versus Texas last season.
It was more of the same after halftime, when Neal continued churning out yards on the ground and was even part of the longest passing play of the game, a 53-yard catch and run on a shovel pass in the fourth quarter.
Neal finished with 32 carries for 224 yards rushing with a touchdown, also catching six passes for 110 yards. Both of yardage totals are career highs, and he’s also the first player in Jayhawks history to have both 200+ rushing yards and 100+ receiving yards in the same game.
The historic effort wasn’t exactly a surprise to Leipold, who said he thought this would be a big game for Neal. To hammer the point home, Leipold sent a Tweet to Neal on the bus ride to the game that recalled Tony Sands’ record-setting performance on Nov. 24, 1991, in which the KU legend racked up 396 rushing yards on 58 carries. Leipold told Neal that while he may not get 58 touches against Oklahoma State, he thought he could be in for a big day.
“The performance of Devin Neal, I thought, was just outstanding,” Leipold said.
Was it the best performance the head coach has ever seen?
“I know it’s right up there,” he said.
Neal’s effort against the Cowboys overshadowed an effective and efficient day for Bean, who completed 18-of-23 passes for the Jayhawks, tallying 203 yards through the air and two passing touchdowns. He also racked up 93 rushing yards, 73 of which came on a second quarter touchdown.
The backup quarterback on the opposite sideline, Rangel, had a memorable day for all the wrong reasons in the first start of his career. He completed 27-of-40 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but he was also intercepted three times and fumbled on a fourth down inside the red zone midway through the second quarter.
Leipold didn’t let the injuries the Cowboys were dealing with, at quarterback or anywhere else on their roster, put a damper on what the Jayhawks accomplished.
“I know they’re banged up, but I’m not going to let that take away from the performances of some guys and the way Jason played as well,” Leipold said.
The second-year KU coach has spoken throughout the season about getting to a point where fans don’t run on the field after home win like they have this season, and that winning should be an expectation.
When it came to the fans storming the field and tearing down the goal posts to clinch bowl eligibility, though, Leipold’s excitement was evident.
“I think it’s awesome,” Leipold said. “We know we have a special fanbase here, one that I’ve said before has been through a lot … to see the students take that opportunity, it’s pretty neat.”
For as important as the win was for bowl eligibility purposes, it was also another example of how far Kansas has come in a short time. KU had lost 12 straight meetings with OSU entering this weekend, each one by an average of 30.7 points. But right from the beginning of this year’s meeting, it was evident that this was a different Jayhawks team.
“We didn’t have a first down in the first half against these guys last year, [tonight] we had a first down on the first play,” Leipold said.
There’s a lot more football to play for Kansas this regular season, not even including the bowl game. There’s still three more games to go in the regular season, at least one of which will be against another ranked team, possibly two. Leipold said he still wants his group to focus on the task at hand, which includes a road trip to Lubbock, Texas to face Texas Tech next weekend.
But, for now, it’s all celebration and smiles in Lawrence. The Jayhawks were on the other end of record-setting performances and three-touchdown losses throughout many of the last 14 seasons.
This time around, however, it’s an underclassman playing for his hometown team, a backup quarterback starting because of injury and maybe the hottest name in college football coaching that are on the right side of the ledger and making plans for a late-December trip.
Click below to hear what Kansas coach Lance Leipold had to say following the Jayhawks’ 37-16 win over Oklahoma State.