The question to Kansas football coach Lance Leipold was simple enough: Can Saturday’s closer-than-expected 35-23 loss to No. 3 Oklahoma be positive for the program regardless, or does KU need to back that up with another good result Saturday against Oklahoma State to keep the momentum?
Leipold, though, didn’t answer as one might expect given his team’s struggles before Saturday.
“You hope it’s a building block,” Leipold said Tuesday. “But again, we lost the game. I mean, we can’t lose sight of that sometimes.”
While Leipold has talked often this season about not letting his team settle for moral victories, he’s never been more forceful about that belief than Tuesday — when no one would have blamed him if he’d have taken a few moments to pat his team on the back.
Heck, if there was any week to bask in a bit of optimism it would have been now, especially after KU nearly pulled off a stunning upset Saturday against Oklahoma as a 38 1/2-point underdog.
In his weekly press conference, though, Leipold went out of his way to make clear losing was still losing.
“I want to acknowledge the positive, but what could have been too,” Leipold said. “And really what we’d be talking about (if KU had won).”
OK, deep breath. Let’s take a step back before analyzing this closer.
Just a week ago, KU hosted Texas Tech — widely considered the second-worst team in the Big 12 — and was down 41-0 in the final minute before falling 41-14. The Red Raiders were (and are) so unhappy with their current program that coach Matt Wells was fired this week.
In other words: A program in disarray demolished KU — and on its homecoming week, no less.
So now compare that to Saturday. Against the Big 12’s top hope at a College Football Playoff berth and a top-five program, KU led 17-7 with 1:30 left in the third quarter, with Oklahoma also needing two semi-miraculous fourth-quarter, fourth-down conversions from quarterback Caleb Williams to hold off the Jayhawks.
Perhaps no team in America has shown more improvement from one week to the next.
Still ... Leipold’s view of film afterward left him talking more about what could have been than what actually was.
“There’s shoulda, couldas, right?” Leipold said. “I think it goes back to things we say all the time is that most games are decided between three and five plays.”
A few could be circled. KU linebacker Taiwan Berryhill failed to cover up an Oklahoma fumble early in the third quarter that the Sooners eventually recovered. KU’s Rich Miller and Duece Mayberry were in position for a fourth-down stop on Williams, but both missed the tackle on what turned into a long touchdown run.
After discussing some missed plays Tuesday, though, Leipold also circled back to a few positives. KU’s offense punted once against Oklahoma. It started the game with a 14-play touchdown drive, then answered Oklahoma’s first score of the second half with a 10-play march of its own to regain a 10-point lead.
“Those are things that we hadn’t been able to do,” Leipold said. “So those are the ones I want to make sure that I’m emphasizing that we can do it, and we’re gonna need to do those things again.”
Leipold can’t help but see a huge challenge in this week’s opponent Oklahoma State. The 15th-ranked Cowboys — they’re 30 1/2-point Vegas favorites over the Jayhawks — win with balanced football offensively and toughness in the trenches while serving as a model of sorts for what Leipold wants his program to be.
So this week is not only a “big challenge,” Leipold said, but also will be an indicator of how far his team has come.
“You play another excellent football team on the road ... are you gonna be just a blip here on this thing, that you played, whatever, three and a half really good quarters (against Oklahoma)? Or what is it?” Leipold said. “Or are we really starting to move (the program) a little bit more than we have been?”