LAWRENCE — Though the game was not over, Kansas football's players had plenty of reason to be exuberant.
Ahead of the biggest field goal attempt of his collegiate career — surpassed only by an unsuccessful try seconds prior — Liam Jones was reminded of that reality by his head coach.
“I went over to him and I said, ‘OK, I’m not going to let you kick unless you smile,’ ” Miles later recalled. “He said, ‘I’m gonna make this one.’ He was right.”
And the Jayhawks — with a big hat tip to their opponents Saturday — were over the hump.
Jones booted a 32-yard field goal as time expired to give KU a wild 37-34 victory over Texas Tech at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The senior delivered Miles his first Big 12 victory with the Jayhawks and put an exclamation point at the end of one of the most bizarre end-game sequences in college football this season.
Jones’ first kick, a 40-yard try with 13 seconds remaining, was blocked by the Red Raiders, the second blocked KU kick of the evening and fourth in the last two weeks. But Texas Tech’s Douglas Coleman, who fielded the ball, made the baffling decision to attempt a lateral in the direction of no one in particular, resulting in a fumble.
KU long snapper Logan Klusman alertly fell on the ball, Miles called for a timeout with two seconds remaining, and Jones got a second take. The ensuing kick sailed through the uprights, sending Jayhawk players in pursuit of their teammate — “I don’t know if I was running in celebration or running for my life,” Jones recalled — and Jayhawk fans streaming onto the field.
“I was just kind of dazed. I didn’t even realize the field got stormed,” Jones said. “All the players were around me and then the players opened up and nothing else opened up. It was all just the fans. It was like, holy crap. I’m just super blessed, super thankful.”
Miles heard the frenzy kick-started by Jones’ kick, though he admitted he didn’t witness it first-hand.
“I didn’t see it go through,” Miles said. “I had my eyes closed.”
“I always do,” Miles responded. “Early and late.”
KU senior quarterback Carter Stanley continued his dynamic play under new offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon, finishing 26-for-37 for 415 yards and three touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Stephon Robinson had a coming out party, hauling in six catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns. The Jayhawk defense stabilized after the first-quarter targeting ejection of senior safety and team captain Bryce Torneden.
Most importantly, KU did what it couldn’t do in last week’s 50-48 defeat at No. 15 Texas, a stunning near-upset of the three-touchdown-favorite Longhorns. That game also ended on a last-second field goal, though Miles’ squad was on the wrong end of it.
“(This victory) came the hard way,” Miles said. “The feeling coming off the Texas game, we played so well, put ourselves in position to win, certainly. We finished short. The pain was terrible. The question was, would this team get up for another Big 12 opponent? They did. It showed. ...
“We wondered about the resiliency of this team, and there’s no reason to, because they came to work, they busted their tails. Now they’ve put themselves in position to play the back end of the season for something very significant.”
As Miles indicated, Saturday’s outcome didn’t come easy.
KU (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) came out the gate sluggish, spotting the Red Raiders (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter. The deficit stood 27-14 on a 27-yard field goal by Texas Tech’s Trey Wolff with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
That’s when Stanley and the new-look KU offense turned on the afterburners.
Stanley found Robinson for a 65-yard touchdown connection, then Andrew Parchment for a 70-yard strike with 13:42 left that tied the game at 27-all — Jones’ extra point after the Robinson score was blocked.
The Red Raiders quickly retook a seven-point lead on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Jett Duffey to Dalton Rigdon, the third touchdown of the night for Duffey on an evening where the backup quarterback threw for 271 yards. But it proved to be the final points for the visiting squad — KU freshman running back Velton Gardner knotted the score at 34 with an impressive 32-yard scamper with 5:12 to play, and Jones got the last laugh by capping a drive that saw Stanley go 6-for-7 with the lone incompletion coming a dropped pass.
“Those last couple of minutes were a circus,” Stanley said. "Between all the timeouts and the unfortunate event of it getting blocked, them trying to (lateral), which I respect — they’re trying to make a play, win a game out of it (and) I couldn’t think of a better play than that, so I don’t really blame the kid for lateraling that. But unbelievable of Logan (Klusman) to run and jump on that ball to give us a second chance. I knew we were going to drain it.”
Jones said he tries to approach every kick as if it's his first of the game, adding he found a “big mental reset” button after the calamity of his first game-winning try.
“If I’m going to be honest with you, the whole situation kind of felt numb to me,” Jones said. “It was just me and wherever that ball was and the uprights. I try to keep it simple like that. Not really nervous. I can’t really describe it. It was the first time I’ve ever been in that situation.
“If I was thinking of anything it was obviously the kick and just thinking about the guys on the sideline and knowing that they deserved it and I just wanted to help them get that, if that makes sense.”
The minutes that followed included the anarchy of many in the homecoming crowd of 31,306 pouring onto the field, security guards forming protective circles around the goal posts and Miles struggling to navigate the mayhem.
“It was a jam-packed small area around me that I could not see probably farther than 3 feet, OK? There were people and people and people and people,” Miles said. “I was going across the stadium to congratulate the (Texas Tech) coach (Matt Wells). He had a team that played awfully hard. It took forever. I met 150 people I never knew — ‘Hey, nice to see you, see you later.’ And I would pass. I can tell you this: That’s better than a ride at some amusement parks I’ve been at. ...
“I want you to know something: I think I dang near got squished at the stadium.”
A victory like this, Miles indicated, can change the momentum of a program — “I think the experience of a team winning games gives them a reservoir if you will, a reserve of energy and action that they can use in the next game because they know there’s a great opportunity for them to win.”
That next opportunity will come at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at home against Sunflower Showdown rival Kansas State, a team that had its own field storming Saturday after its upset victory over No. 5 Oklahoma.
If nothing else, the Jayhawks’ newest hero now has ample reason to honor his coach’s frequent request.
“(Coach Miles) is always telling me to smile. I don’t know if I put off this disgusting face around him, but he’s always telling me to smile,” Jones said. “I feel like I’m just focusing. I think I told him, ‘I want to make this kick first,’ or something like that. But I’m really thankful for him and (special teams) coach (Mike) Ekeler for keeping my confidence up, especially after the performance last week. I knew the guys needed me. They told me they needed me."