"It's probably the most frustrating thing I've been through in my life," said Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier.
There was the lone Nebraska fumble, which was recovered in the endzone for a touchdown. Then there was Kansas's fumble, which was recovered by Nebraska near the endzone. Nebraska sprung a big kickoff return that put the Cornhuskers deep in Kansas territory shortly after the Jayhawks took a short-lived 17-16 lead. And there were the two second-half penalties that extended Nebraska drives and led to 10 Cornhusker points.
"It was a hard-fought game," said Kansas Coach Mark Mangino. "Those kinds of things hurt you. You can't do that against a good team. You can't make those kinds of mistakes and let those things happen."
Nebraska scored on its first drive, taking the ball 58 yards in just six plays. On third and goal from the Kansas 1, Cornhusker quarterback Zac Lee stretched for the endzone, only to have the ball knocked free by Kansas linebacker Justin Springer. But Nebraska running back Roy Helu was able to fall on the ball in the end zone for the Cornhuskers' first score. They added to their lead in the second quarter when Alex Henery booted a 25-yard field goal.
But the Jayhawks' offense sprung to life. Kansas put together a 13-play, 80-yard drive, culminating in a five-yard touchdown run by Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing. The Jayhawks twice converted on fourth-and-one plays on the drive, with Toben Opurum gaining five yards on the first run, and three on the second. Kansas then tied the game 10-10 heading into the half with a 33-yard Jacob Branstetter field goal as time expired.
The Jayhawks kept that momentum going early in the third, driving all the way down the field, but Kerry Meier was stripped on a 16-yard pass play, and safety Matt O'Hanlon recovered the ball at the four. The Cornhuskers then drove 79 yards in 13 plays before Henery added his second field goal of the game, this one a 34-yarder.
Another Kansas mistake came back to bite the Jayhawks. On a big third down play, Nebraska was stopped short, only to have the drive extended by a roughing the passer penalty on Jamal Greene. A few plays later, Henery connected from 38 yards out, giving the Cornhuskers a 16-10 lead.
The Jayhawks came right back, traveling 89 yards in 10 plays, capped by a 21-yard pass from Reesing to Dezmon Briscoe. Meier caught passes of 19, 15 and 10 yards on the drive, while also drawing a pass interference call that gave the Jayhawks a first down on third-and-10.
But the Jayhawks allowed a big kickoff return, and a five-yard offside penalty gave the Cornhuskers the ball on the Kansas 31. Kansas then stopped Nebraska well shy of the first down on a third-and-long play but gave up a first down anyway when Justin Thornton was flagged for a personal foul he incurred by grabbing the receiver's facemask.
On the very next play, Helu found a crease and darted 20 yards for the touchdown. Lee hit Niles Paul for the two-point conversion and a 24-17 lead.
"It definitely was one of those plays that you wished you had back," Thornton said. "It's so disappointing because I felt like that's one play I could have made in the game … I sniffed it out and grabbed (the receiver), but I was getting blocked off by a guy and reached for whatever I could grab. They scored on the very next play and that hurts."
The Cornhuskers were then able to run down the clock, thanks in large part to a Helu 30 run on third-and-10. They added an insurance score with 29 seconds left as Helu ran in from 14 yards out.
Helu finished with 156 yards rushing on 28 carries. He had 12 carries for 86 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Lee passed for 161 yards and rushed for another 53. Paul had four catches for 154 yards.
Reesing was just 19 of 41, but he didn't commit a turnover, and had 236 yards passing and a touchdown and 42 yards rushing and another score. Meier had 10 catches for 127 yards while Briscoe chipped in 77 yards on four catches and a touchdown. Opurum had 43 yards on 15 carries, many in short-yardage situations.
The Jayhawks (5-5, 1-5) will next travel to Austin, while the Cornhuskers (7-3, 4-2) will play Kansas State, essentially in a Big 12 North Championship game. That's a spot that the Jayhawks aimed for before the season started.
It's really frustrating," Opurum said. "It's not bad luck, it's a lack of focus … I honestly believe that we have the talent to be undefeated right now. But we've made small mistakes that we haven't been able to get past."
Nebraska—Roy Helu Jr. 0 fumble recovery (Alex Henery kick), 12:05 1Q
NU—Henery 25 FG, 10:47 2Q
Kansas—Todd Reesing 5 run (Jacob Branstetter kick), 4:58 2Q
KU—Jacob Branstetter 33 FG, 0:00 2Q
NU—Henery 34 FG, 3:42 3Q
NU—Henery 38 FG, 11:53 4Q
KU—Dezmon Briscoe 21 pass from Reesing (Branstetter kick), 7:34 4Q
NU—Helu 20 run (Niles Paul pass from Zac Lee), 6:19 4Q
NU—Helu 14 run (Henery kick), 0:29 4Q
- Jeff Spikes started his first game at guard, largely to tangle with Nebraska All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh finished with three tackles, with none coming in the backfield.
Running back Toben Opurum also gave the offensive line credit, saying that they were "much-improved," and Kerry Meier gave the line credit for jump-starting the offense.
- The loss means that Kansas lost its fifth straight game for the first time since 2002. It also ensured that the Jayhawks will have a losing record against North opponents for the first time since the 2004 season.
- The seniors weren't the only ones to take the loss hard. Junior wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe said that the players practiced hard, and had been through the whole losing streak, only to see the team falter on Saturdays.
- Opurum came up limping after a carry, but cautioned fans not to read too much into it.
Mangino didn't give an update on defensive end Jake Laptad, who left the game with an injury. Mangino said he hadn't checked on Laptad's status before the press conference.