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Lance Leipold perceived this like a coach. Quarterback Jason Bean viewed it as an optimist.
Neither was wrong following Kansas football’s 52-33 road loss to Duke, which provided the latest Rorschach test for those closely following the program.
Start with this: The scoreboard — what matters most — did not show improvement. KU was non-competitive in the fourth quarter and failed to cover the Las Vegas spread for a fourth straight week.
Leipold was coming from this general perspective when meeting reporters in a cramped room just outside Wallace Wade Stadium after Saturday’s game. The perennial-winning coach — the one that started his career 109-6 at Division III Wisconsin Whitewater — was mostly focused in the aftermath on what the Jayhawks didn’t do.
“I’m thinking about not scoring after the first interception. I’m thinking about how we came up dry there at the end,” Leipold said. “Those are the things that kind of stick in my mind.”
A few minutes later, Bean sat in the same chair with a different worldview.
The Jayhawks offense — a week after mustering just 7 points against Baylor while averaging a measly 3.3 yards per play — had balled out against the Blue Devils. KU gashed Duke for big run plays, threw over the top for deep balls and posted its best yardage total (530) since October 2019.
“I think we showed growth — the ability to come in each week and just get better each day,” Bean said. “I’m extremely proud of this offense for the way we played in 60 minutes. I think this is just another night we can build off of and continue to get better.”
So let’s get honest about KU football for a second: The last two weeks, against Power Five opponents, it was basically hoping for the other team to make mistakes.
The Jayhawks’ main goals were simply to avoid self-inflicted errors while hoping to take advantage of the other teams’ generosity. And to be fair, KU has succeeded with the former most of the season, keeping its turnovers low while mostly avoiding penalties.
That’s what made Saturday’s effort different, though, on a mild afternoon in Durham. KU’s offense did more than just avoid mistakes against Duke; it performed well enough to go take a game from an opponent.
The final numbers reflect this. KU averaged 7.4 yards per play, succeeding in one of college football’s most important statistics.
Need proof? Heading into this week, FBS teams that averaged 7.4 yards per play or more in a game had gone 68-8.
“Statistically, and big plays and things like that, I think there’s things for our young men to gain confidence from holistically as an offensive unit,” Leipold said, “and I think we will.”
Open up the hood for further inspection, and it’s not difficult to spot some of the improvements from a few weeks ago.
Most notable was the offensive line, which frequently opened up holes for the running backs. Devin Neal broke free for a 62-yard run, while Torry Locklin had a 36-yard score too.
Bean also benefited from much better protection, which allowed him to connect on three different passing plays of 40 or more yards.
“I think this is the best game so far for the offensive line. I’m extremely, extremely proud of them for the way they bounced back after last week,” Bean said. “Last week was not one of the best weeks for them, and I’m just excited for the way that they came in this week and prepared.”
KU had flashes from playmakers too. Receiver Trevor Wilson had a second-quarter reception that should make ESPN’s SportsCenter after he caught the ball around Duke defender Jaylen Stinson’s back.
— Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) September 25, 2021
Bean threw for 323 yards, while Neal added 107 on the ground.
KU was frankly unfortunate — and also un-clutch, if that’s a thing — to only get to 33 points.
An early red-zone possession went backward because of a questionable clipping penalty, later resulting in a missed field goal. Bean also had two late drives stall in the fourth quarter, including one with a desperation fourth-down interception.
The elephant in the room must be addressed as well, though: KU’s defense didn’t need to do much to make this a competitive game ... and it couldn’t even reach that low bar.
Leipold left frustrated with his team’s tackling for a third straight week. Duke also gashed KU for nine 10-plus-yard run plays and four passing strikes of 25 or more.
The solutions here aren’t simple, especially while staring down the barrel of a conference season that will present offenses just as explosive as Duke’s.
“We have to go back and keep analyzing what we can do and what we can handle as far as total package,” Leipold said. “But we just can’t line up ... we’re too young of a football team just to line up and play and think we’re just going to go toe-to-toe with everybody in the rest of the Big 12 season.”
This remains the intersection of KU football. Reasons for hope, with the realities of limitations. Progress in some areas, yet a score that doesn’t reflect it.
The season will continue its steamroll ahead. A road game against Iowa State is next, with Leipold hoping that some of the small gains with his program aren’t going unnoticed by the most diehard of fans.
“They care, you know? They really do,” Leipold said of his players. “And they really battle, and they want to play and they do want to do well.”
It still didn’t take away the sting after a loss.
Or Leipold feeling as frustrated as anyone that the final outcomes haven’t been closer.
“I like the way we’re going about it. I do,” Leipold said of the rebuilding process. “It’s just not happening fast enough for anyone that’s following our program.”