LAWRENCE — Carter Stanley had something to say to Mike Lee.
The Kansas football quarterback wanted to personally deliver a message to the safety, fellow Jayhawk senior and team captain for Saturday’s game against No. 6 Oklahoma. Lee, who had just played though what head coach Les Miles later identified as a broken right hand, couldn’t secure a surefire pick-six while the eventual 45-20 defeat was still in its early stages, one of several game-changing errors by KU in a costly second quarter.
Stanley’s message? That Lee himself was not to blame for the admittedly “tough” moment.
“I talked to him in there and I said, ‘I already know it was the cast that messed you up there,’ ” Stanley recalled. “I told him how much I appreciate him just playing in the first place. Not a lot of guys, if they get an injury like that where your position requires you to use your hands to tackle and make deflections (and) interceptions (would’ve played). It just says a lot about his character and his fight as well.”
While the Jayhawks showed the talent gap on display at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium wasn't as drastic as the near-five-touchdown point spread suggested, self-inflicted wounds ensured a plucky performance wouldn’t turn into what would've been a seismic upset.
“If we had a cleaner start,” Miles said, “it could’ve been a completely different day.”
While KU (2-4, 0-3 Big 12) entered halftime in a two-touchdown hole, the 33-point underdog could’ve actually held a lead had a handful of mishaps gone the other direction.
Lee’s dropped pick — a screen pass from OU star quarterback Jalen Hurts clanked off the safety’s hands near the Sooner 42-yard line — came one play after Jayhawk tight end James Sosinski's dropped pass on a fourth-and-2 attempt resulted in a turnover on downs. Those plays, as well as a questionable-at-best personal foul call on a late hit by Lee on a still-in-bounds Hurts, set up the Sooners’ go-ahead score, a 1-yard plow by Hurts.
Later, with time winding down in the second quarter, a series of OU (5-0, 2-0) penalties and KU tackles-for-loss turned a first-and-goal from the 7 into a fourth-and-goal from the Jayhawk 44. But KU, which stopped the clock with a pair of timeouts on that drive, didn’t have a returner back on the ensuing punt, which was downed at the KU 2.
Miles said the decision to not have a punt returner on the field was an intentional one.
“Not wanting to mishandle the ball was the key piece to it, OK? And leave it there and bring it out may well have been the call of the day as opposed to a lateral run,” Miles said. “So there’s some things that we have to fix.”
OU stuffed three consecutive KU runs and took a timeout after each, then got the ball back at the KU 10 after a 46-yard punt return from CeeDee Lamb on a play that also featured another Jayhawk penalty, this time a facemask infraction. Hurts found Lamb on the first play of the arguably avoidable drive, pushing the margin to 21-7 with 31 seconds left before intermission.
Stanley said everyone shares blame for the way the first half ended.
“That’s huge," Stanley said. "You’ve got to look at it as offense, special teams and defense. Offense, if we don’t go three-and-out right there we can try to move down the field and score or at least get us out of that situation. Special teams, they have a great player that makes a great return. And defense, right before the half (the Sooners) get a touchdown that puts them up (21-7). So it’s just a team effort, and unfortunate that happened.”
All told, KU was penalized nine times for 82 yards in the defeat.
“Penalties didn’t help us in any way today,” Miles said. “We talked about that before I came up here. That’s not us. That’s not the culture that we want to identify as us. You can’t be selfish. They’ll continue to get that. I didn’t like that at all. If there’s one thing I didn’t like, that was too many penalties and penalties that were not necessary.”
The Sooners blew the game open out of the intermission, scoring with ease on their first two drives. The Heisman contender Hurts first scored on a 5-yard scamper off a perfectly executed fake toss option play, then hit a wide-open Trey Sermon on a 15-yarder that gave OU a 35-7 advantage with 6:18 remaining in the third quarter. Rhamondre Stevenson's 61-yard rushing touchdown early in the fourth accounted for the 42 answered scored by the Sooners, effectively icing the outcome.
“Some good things. Some not so good,” Miles said of the contest. “An afternoon where we had some lost opportunities, but still, there’s improvement, and you can see it. We’ll continue to step toward that improvement.”
Stanley finished 18-for-28 for 230 yards and three touchdowns, accounting for the game’s first points on a 22-yard dime dropped into the hands of Daylon Charlot and 39- and 24-yarders delivered to Stephon Robinson in the fourth quarter.
“You look at it and I kind of think there’s three-to-five plays where if they go differently, who knows?" Stanley said. "It’s tough, but it’s all about just doing our job and executing going forward.”
Robinson finished with 131 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. Sophomore running back Pooka Williams led the suddenly depleted Jayhawk rushing attack with 137 yards on 23 attempts.
Lee was requested but not made available at the postgame media session.
“Mike, that’s my brother. He’s different,” Williams said. "His heart and his mentality toward the game is totally different. He doesn’t care how big you is, how fast you is, or how you look. He’s going to hit you. That speaks for itself, for real.”
Hurts was limited through the air, finishing 16-for-24 for 228 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but added 10 carries for 56 yards and two scores. Paced by Stevenson's 109 yards on five carries, OU finished with 268 rushing yards on 37 attempts.
“I just spoke to my team, and they’re going to want to play hard,” Miles said. “That’s who they are. It was a nice talk. ... There’s no hang-dog. They want to do what we set out to do, and it’s going to (happen), they’re gonna get there. They’re gonna take the strides that they need to have the success that they’re going to want to have.”
After a bye week, KU will return to action at 6 p.m. Oct. 19 against Texas in Austin. Miles expects to be anything but inactive in the time off, with the coaching staff hitting the recruiting trail while also reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't at the season's midpoint.
“Not exactly what we want, but some improvement, and a team that wants to be a damn good team,” Miles said. “They want to improve. So I enjoy that. I enjoy that characteristic.”