KU Jayhawks football didn’t upset Oklahoma Sooners ... but accomplished this instead

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Just after finishing the run — and diving inside the Oklahoma 5-yard line — Kansas running back Devin Neal popped up and looked to the sideline.

His arm twirled in a circular motion, as if there were an imaginary spoon in his right hand.

“Feed me,” was the message to his coaches.

“I was just super-energetic, and I felt like I had a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger out there, just playing with (that),” Neal said afterward. “I was just enjoying every moment of that game.”

He wasn’t the only one.

The Jayhawks, as a whole, did not pull off the upset against the third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in a 35-23 loss at Booth Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Some fans could blame questionable calls. Others could point to missed opportunities late.

Still, that all might miss the bigger point: KU — as a 38 1/2-point underdog — pushed Oklahoma to the brink while looking like a real, true legitimate Big 12 football program.

For one afternoon, that meant KU’s players were flying around like they hadn’t all season ... then strutting their stuff when they delivered big plays.

“Our guys played with confidence,” KU coach Lance Leipold said, “and it grew throughout.”

For a long time, KU fans have only looked for hope from their football team. And it hadn’t happened much lately, with the team covering the Vegas spread just once in their last 16 games ahead of Saturday’s near-stunner.

This, though, is mostly in the vision of what Leipold wants his program to be when things fully take shape 2-3 years from now.

An offensive line opening things up in the run game. A fearless back in Neal delivering blows and falling forward for the extra yard. A defense — led by safety Kenny Logan’s 14 tackles — popping a more talented team time and again while letting them know the Jayhawks were not going to play soft.

“I feel like we showed our fight, our physicality,” safety Ricky Thomas said, “and that we can fight for four quarters straight without backing down to anyone.”

KU also played the first half on its own terms while taking a 10-0 lead. The Jayhawks milked clock, then extended possessions with critical third downs. Their first touchdown drive had 14 plays and spanned more than nine minutes, and because of that time dominance, high-flying Oklahoma was only able to get the ball three times in the first half.

Neal said the game plan was to focus on getting “Dirty four yards” in the run game, grinding for that total each time while racking up first downs.

KU executed the formula to near-perfection, with Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley admitting afterward it was “probably the fastest first half I’ve been a part of.”

“We fought hard,” Neal said, “and you live for games like that.”

KU still is overmatched personnel-wise. That showed up in the second half, as Oklahoma scored touchdowns on all five possessions, which included three that took four plays or fewer.

It still looked, for a brief moment, like KU might just pull off the near-impossible.

Since 2003 — according to TeamRankings — 38 1/2-point underdogs or worse, like KU vs. OU, entered Saturday with a combined record of 1-434 for a .002 win percentage.

After Neal plunged ahead on fourth-and-goal from the 1 for a score, however, KU was on its way to leading 17-7 with 1:30 left in the third quarter.

“We got a taste of it. There’s a lot of disappointed guys,” Leipold said. “We’ve got to find a way then to make those extra two or three plays that make that a really celebratory locker room.”

Oklahoma became Oklahoma late. Quarterback Caleb Williams made two impressive and unique plays on fourth downs to keep drives going.

The stats still said KU staying in it was legitimate and not fluky. Jason Bean threw for 246 yards after combining for 257 passing yards in his three previous Big 12 games. Neal rushed for 100 yards, while the Jayhawks’ 6.3 yards per play weren’t far off that from the more-heralded Sooners (7.4).

It wasn’t a win for KU. And Leipold preached that again in the locker room, telling his guys that they shouldn’t be satisfied.

The big-picture view, though, couldn’t be ignored, with Leipold saying there was “definitely a lot to build on here today.”

That included some identity-building for a program, which showed — for a day — that it could hang with the big boys by dishing out the blows itself.

“All we did was what our coach told us to do: Don’t worry about who the opponent is, just line up and play hard and play physical,” Thomas said. “And that’s what we did to the end.”

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