Focused Jayhawks plan to remain a Big 12 contender
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- At halftime of Saturday's game against Baylor, former Kansas running back John Riggins wandered through the Memorial Stadium press box, proudly wearing the Jayhawks letterman's jacket given to him nearly four decades earlier.
It had been 37 years since Riggins had stepped foot inside Memorial Stadium, where he became one of the Jayhawks' legendary players after breaking Gale Sayers' KU season-rushing record in 1970.
"I haven't been on that field since the last game of my senior season in 1970," said Riggins, who was added to Memorial Stadium's Ring Of Honor in a halftime ceremony last week. "And let me tell you, it felt exactly the same walking out there again."
It does feel like old times at Kansas. Well, except for Riggins' jacket. The worn sleeves barely fit over the NFL Hall of Fame running back's broad shoulders anymore. After leaving Kansas, Riggins moved to New York and became a colorful pro athlete and even a soap opera star. Riggins, now 59, ran for 11,352 yards in 14 NFL seasons and played in two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins. There was never enough time to return to Kansas.
Nowadays, though, there's no place like home.
The Jayhawks, one of only six unbeaten teams left in Division I-A, are in position to challenge for their first conference title since Riggins' first season on his alma mater's varsity team. In 1968, coach Pepper Rogers led Kansas to a 9-2 record and a first-place tie in the Big Eight Conference.
The Jayhawks lost to Penn State 15-14 in the Orange Bowl following the 1968 season, a game in which Kansas led 14-7 with less than two minutes to play. But the Nittany Lions completed a 47-yard bomb and then scored both a touchdown and two-point conversion to win in coach Joe Paterno's third season at the school.
It has been an uphill battle for the Jayhawks ever since.
Since Riggins' sophomore season, Kansas has finished with a winning record only nine times in 38 years. The Jayhawks have been in contention for a conference championship even fewer times, finishing better than fourth in league standings in only three seasons since 1968. In fact, since the Big Eight expanded to the Big 12 and split into two divisions before the 1996 season, Kansas hasn't finished better than fourth in the Big 12 North.
Maybe that's why the rest of the country hasn't yet noticed what the No. 13 Jayhawks are doing this season. They are 6-0 going into Saturday's game at Colorado (ESPN, 5:30 p.m. ET), their best start since 1995, and lead the Big 12 North with a 2-0 conference record. Kansas has beaten five of its six opponents by an average of 47.8 points, and its other win was a 30-24 upset of rival Kansas State at Manhattan on Oct. 6.
"There were so many seasons when Kansas was at the bottom and didn't win a lot of games," Jayhawks quarterback Todd Reesing said. "When a team has that happen for so long, the norm is to dismiss them. It's great to be 6-0, but I know there are a lot of people that still think it's a fluke. We have to prove we're not a fluke and go out and continue to prove those people wrong."
Kansas will have plenty of opportunities to do that during the final six weeks of the season. The Jayhawks play three of their next four games on the road, after not leaving their home state's borders during the first seven weeks of the season. After playing the Buffaloes at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., Kansas plays at Texas A&M on Oct. 27 and at Oklahoma State on Nov. 10.
The Jayhawks play home games against Nebraska on Nov. 3 and Iowa State two weeks later. The season finale against Missouri will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Nov. 24. Kansas doesn't play traditional Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas this season.
"There are no bye weeks and there are no weeks off the rest of the way," Reesing said. "It's going to be a grind. It's going to be difficult. I think this program is ready for it. We've got a lot to prove. We've got to go to places like Colorado and Texas A&M and win on the road. We've got to win tough games. If we lose a game or two, people are going to write us off again."
Reesing, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, was written off as a college quarterback long ago. He is listed at 5-foot-10 but might be an inch or two shorter. His height was the main reason college coaches didn't flock to Austin to recruit him; he threw for more than 6,500 yards with 70 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions in high school. His only major scholarship offers came from Kansas and Kansas State. Nearly all the Texas schools ignored him.
"It was kind of the story of my recruiting process," Reesing said. "I was kind of written off by people because of my height. Even though I put up huge numbers in high school, I wasn't recruited by a lot of schools. Listed next to my name was that height and people wouldn't take a look at me."
Opponents are always looking for Reesing now. He ranks 14th in the country in pass efficiency, completing 57 percent of his passes for 1,652 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
With Reesing leading the way, the Jayhawks are seventh in total offense in Division I-A with 515.8 yards per game and second in scoring offense with 50.3 points per game. The Kansas defense has been just as good, allowing only 240 yards and 9.5 points per contest.
"We're a better football team in all areas," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "These kids know and understand [what's at stake]. We're a better team than we were a year ago."
The Jayhawks never got out of the gates last season. They lost five of their first eight games and the season seemed lost. But then Reesing came off the bench and played for the first time at Colorado, erasing a 9-0 deficit with three second-half touchdowns in a 20-15 victory. Reesing played in two more games off the bench last season, replacing oft-injured Kerry Meier. The Jayhawks won three of their last four games to finish 6-6.
Reesing won the starting job from Meier in a hotly contested battle during preseason camp this year. The Jayhawks haven't lost with Reesing as their starter.
Reesing said Kansas hasn't proved anything yet.
"I think it's going to take the rest of the season to prove this team is for real," Reesing said. "It's going to take the entire season to prove that a team that hasn't won much in the past is for real."
The Jayhawks are halfway there.
"When we won six games last year, they said we were bowl-eligible," Mangino said. "You know where we spent the holidays? At home. That's just propaganda. If you want to go to a bowl game, you've got to keep winning."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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