AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The start of Kansas's steady rise in football can be traced to a small patch in the south end zone of Royal-Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas.
It was just under the “N” in “Longhorns” where Jared Casey cradled a pass from a scrambling Jalon Daniels for a 2-point conversion in a 57-56 double overtime victory in 2021. The win ended a 58-game road losing skid in the Big 12 and launched something else: belief that the Jayhawks could be good at this game.
Kansas (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) returns to Austin on Saturday ranked No. 24 for a matchup with the No. 3 Longhorns (4-0, 1-0). Kansas and Texas are two of the last three undefeated teams in the Big 12.
Texas beat the Jayhawks in a rout last year, but the return to the site of a stunning moment for both programs conjures memories of triumph or humiliation, depending on the jersey worn that day.
The Kansas program has taken off behind Daniels and coach Lance Leipold. The Jayhawks started 5-0 last season before Daniels was injured. A 6-7 finish with a bowl game appearance was disappointing, but still the program’s best, most competitive season since 2008. Now Kansas has started 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than 100 years.
Leipold doesn't really want to talk about 2021 anymore.
“Old news. Doesn't matter. It's so far in the past. It helped this program. It helped our players,” Leipold said. “I really want to focus on our team now and where we're going, because that's what's important.”
Texas can't shake the bad memories so easily. The loss was a low point in a 5-7 season. The turnaround since that game has been steady. Texas is 13-6 since that defeat, is favored to win the Big 12 for the first time since 2009 and Longhorns fans are dreaming of the College Football Playoff.
“Not all storms come to cause issues in your life,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. " Some storms come to clear the path, and I felt like that storm cleared a path for us on what we needed to do.”
Sarkisian has noted that many current Longhorns players remember the misery of that loss and that season, and use it as fuel to make sure it never happens again.
“That (game) was a turning point in my career here," offensive lineman Christian Jones said, " and for the rest of the team not wanting to experience that again.”
Even with all the talent Texas has at wide receiver, tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders has become a favorite target of quarterback Quinn Ewers. His 100-yard games against Alabama and Baylor made him the first Longhorns tight end with two 100-yard games in a career. A one-handed grab over the middle and a hurdle of Baylor defender showed off elite hands and agility. He also threw the key block to seal of the sideline for Ewers's 29-yard touchdown run against Baylor.
Casey was a walk-on fullback when he made the winning play in 2021 with his first catch of the season. He's now a scholarship tight end with three catches and a touchdown this season.
Both teams excel at forcing turnovers. The Jayhawks and Longhorns have each snagged six interceptions, and both have returned one for a touchdown. The Kansas defense scored twice against BYU last week on fumble and interception returns. Kansas cornerback Cobee Bryant has scored four career defensive touchdowns.
SLOPPY SPECIAL TEAMS
Texas had a notable problem catching kicks last week against Baylor when the Longhorns dropped one kickoff and two punt returns. The muffed punts were both turnovers inside the Texas 20, but both times the Longhorns kept Baylor out of the end zone.
Sarkisian said he does not plan to replace returners Keilon Robinson, Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington but issued a warning if problems persist.
“You have to earn the right to be on (special teams)," Sarkisian said. “The same way you earned your way on, you can earn your way off. ”
THIRD DOWN THROWS
Daniels has been razor sharp on third downs this season, completing 14 of 19 passes with three touchdowns. His 64% career completion rate overall ranks No. 1 in school history.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll