Lance Leipold’s unranked Kansas football team trailed No. 15 Kansas State by 10 points in the fourth quarter of a 47-27 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday night at rainy Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan.
The competitiveness of the game — which was still in question until the final 10 minutes, when the Wildcats (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) effectively put away the Jayhawks (6-6, 3-6) — led a media member to ask KU’s second-year coach if he felt the gap was closing between the Sunflower State and Sunflower Showdown rivals.
The Wildcats have now won 14 straight against KU.
“I’m not going to judge right now if it’s closing. I’m going to let some of you who have watched it over the years tell me if it’s closing,” Leipold said in the interview room late Saturday night.
“I like the direction of our program. I think Chris (Klieman, fourth-year K-State coach who is 4-0 versus KU) does a helluva job. He has a fine staff and has some very talented players. Again, the score doesn’t show that the gap’s been narrowed so I can’t comment on it until we actually prove it.”
Leipold’s first KU team, one that went 2-10, lost to K-State, 35-10, a year ago in Lawrence.
Leipold did address the gap in his postgame talk with his Jayhawks, who were outgained 443 yards to 307.
“Tonight, as I told the team, I’m proud of them, but we’ve got a gap (that) we’ve got to continue to close. That’s why Kansas State is going to play for a conference championship (in the Big 12 title game vs. TCU). I like the progress of this team and I believe in them and we’re going to get ready and close this out with a win,” Leipold said.
The Jayhawks will be playing in a yet-to-be determined bowl game this postseason. It takes six wins to be bowl eligible and Leipold’s squad has attained that standard.
“I mean obviously the second half has been disappointing,” Leipold said. The Jayhawks closed the regular season with three straight losses and six losses in seven games.
“If you’d sat here any other time and think we’d be a 6-6 football team, … I’m proud of this group, proud of the staff. I still think we’re ahead of schedule.”
Leipold was pleased with the performance of some players who have fought through injuries this season.
Running back Devin Neal, who has an undisclosed injury, rushed for 59 yards on 16 carries and scored two TDs against the Wildcats. He also caught two passes for 10 yards.
“He’s barely practicing,” Leipold said. “He puts himself together and goes out there and battles again. No excuses. We’ve got what we’ve got now.
“Sevion (Morrison, RB) misses three practices sick (this week). Ky Thomas (RB, undisclosed injury) is not available. We moved Torry (Locklin, receiver, RB) back to running back,” Leipold continued.
Locklin gained 17 yards on six carries and had a TD run of 12 yards that tied the game at 7. He caught two passes for 23 yards.
“Devin gave us his best. A lot of guys are out there battling. A lot of teams are in that shape. Those are reasons I’m proud of these guys because I know what they are going through,” Leipold said.
Quarterback Jalon Daniels, who missed several games with a shoulder injury only to return the last two weeks, completed 20 of 32 passes for 168 yards. He rushed for 51 yards on eight carries and had a 1-yard run for a score.
“You can tell he was a lot more confident all week,” Leipold said of Daniels. “I thought he prepared very well. He was more aggressive and confident in where he was going with the ball, making decisions. You saw him run the ball tonight. All those things were a huge positive.”
Daniels dedicated his performance “to my auntie who passed away. Her birthday was this past weekend. It was basically a tribute to her,” Daniels added of playing with a heavy heart.
The Jayhawks now will wait and find out what bowl they’ll be playing in this postseason. There will be valuable practices leading up to the bowl, all after a 6-6 season, four games better than a year ago.
“As far as this group goes we’ll continue to learn and get better,” Leipold said, “and we’ll continue to work on our weaknesses.”