Just how bad was Kansas football’s special teams performance Saturday?
A play that was easily that unit’s best of the afternoon was made by a quarterback.
The Jayhawks surrendered not one but two punt returns for touchdowns, both in the first half, of what became a macabre 55-14 defeat to Kansas State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan. With the result, KU’s stretch of futility against its Sunflower Showdown rival entered a third decade, with the No. 20-ranked Wildcats running their winning streak versus the Jayhawks to 12 games.
K-State sophomore Phillip Brooks was dynamic all day, but he was particularly special with the outcome still in question. His 55-yard punt return score gave the Wildcats their first points and a 7-0 advantage, and with just eight seconds left in the second quarter, Phillips housed another punt, this time for a 52-yarder that gave his team a 34-7 lead at the intermission.
"There were a couple of returns that were just unbelievable," said KU coach Les Miles. "Looked like the flood gates had opened and suddenly everybody that had a ball punted to ’em was gonna score."
Worse yet? Those blunders were far from the only mistakes for the visitors’ special teams crew, which also missed a 40-yard field goal try when it was still a one-score game, muffed a punt near the end of the first half that led to a Wildcat touchdown and surrendered two other 40-plus-yard punt returns by Brooks.
Indeed, true freshman quarterback Jalon Daniels’ third-quarter punt on a quick kick proved the lone highlight for the Jayhawks’ special teams, with the boot traveling 34 yards and pinning the Wildcats at their own 6. But that only delayed the inevitable — K-State drove 94 yards for yet another touchdown and a staggering 55-7 lead with 48 seconds left in the third quarter.
Mercifully, the Wildcats took their foot off the gas the rest of the way.
A national championship-winning head coach, Miles arrived at KU two years ago as a noted special teams guru, a distinction earned through prowess in that department at previous stops Oklahoma State and LSU. That has yet to materialize with the Jayhawks (0-5, 0-4 Big 12), but with much work left to do, Miles indicated he isn’t fretting about his reputation in that area.
"This team is going to be a good football team," Miles said. "So for me to endure (those mistakes), it’s nothing. For those kids, it’s going to make them work harder. We’ve got to accomplish that. That’s something as a group, both coaches and players, need to improve in their presentation or maybe in the guys that are playing in spots.
"Again, I think it’s hard, but it’s not as hard on me as it is them."
Without the injured Stephon Robinson, fellow senior Kwamie Lassiter II was tasked with returning punts for KU, and late in the second quarter, disaster struck. With 81 seconds left in the period, Lassiter muffed a punt that was recovered by K-State's Tyler Burns at the KU 41. Three plays later, the Wildcats (4-1, 4-0) had a touchdown — and a 27-7 lead.
Miles labeled the muffed punt the "play of the game" from a negative standpoint for the Jayhawk, adding it was a moment that became "a monster to overcome."
"I should’ve got under it. I could’ve got under it. But I’ve just got to make a play. Routine plays that I need to make," said Lassiter, who had seven catches for 58 yards. "... I feel like coming out it was supposed to be a different game. It was 20-7 when I muffed the punt and then they went down and scored. After that it was 27-7 and a lot of special teams happened. Yeah, that stings."
Asked why, in the final moments of the first half, true freshman punter Reis Vernon didn’t angle his kick away from Brooks — remember, the 5-foot-7, 167-pounder returned it 52 yards for a score as time expired — Miles indicated that was the plan.
"I think some of those were directional kicks out of bounds, so that’s the problem," Miles said. "We were looking for out-of-bounds only, and some of those punts didn’t go out-of-bounds only."
Miles noted in his postgame remarks that several regulars on his team’s special teams unit weren’t available Saturday, a list that included starting punter Kyle Thompson. The Jayhawks lost second-string punter Donovan Gagen to an apparent injury early in the second quarter and were forced to turn to Vernon the rest of the way.
Well, Vernon and, for one play, Daniels.
"I think that the quality of the players within the team make that special teams, those units capable. Guys with great speed," Miles said. "I want you to know: We have some good special teams guys. It’s just that the issue was we were nicked significantly. ... Give us some time to (get healthy). We’ll enjoy the team that comes to play. ...
"We’re a good football team, we’ve got talent and good coaches, and we’re going to put it together."
Miles: Williams intends to return in January
There was one glimmer of hope on the otherwise lost afternoon.
Addressing running back Pooka Williams’ departure — the preseason All-Big 12 selection opted out of the remainder of the season to spend time with his mother, who is battling an illness — Miles left the door open for the dynamic junior’s potential return.
"What he said is, in January, that he’s coming back," said Miles, speaking on what Williams told coaches earlier in the week. "So it’ll be interesting to see."
Shortly after announcing his decision last Monday, Williams tweeted that he and Miles will "reunite" at some point in the future. A likely NFL Draft selection when his collegiate career ends, Williams carried the ball 51 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns before opting out.
"Certainly," Miles continued, "we’d love to have him."