The Kansas football team’s fairy-tale season ended in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday night.
Arkansas defeated the Jayhawks 55-53 in a triple-overtime Liberty Bowl thriller at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium — KU’s first bowl appearance since 2008.
After coming back from a 25-point deficit, the Jayhawks’ fate was sealed when they failed to convert a 2-point conversion in the third overtime.
The Razorbacks jumped to a 31-7 lead and led 38-13 midway through the third quarter. But Kansas made a furious comeback in the second half. After recovering an onside kick, the Jayhawks had a four-play, 50-yard drive and converted the two-point conversion to make it 38-all.
The teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime to force a second overtime.
After the Jayhawks scored a touchdown that cut the deficit to two points at 53-51, KU quarterback Jalon Daniels was leveled on a two-point conversion attempt. A targeting penalty was whistled on Arkansas, giving the Jayhawks another chance.
They made good on the redo, tying the game again, 53-53, with Daniels’ pass to tight end Jared Casey.
In the third and final overtime, KU ran a reverse that put the ball in the hands of backup quarterback Jason Bean. Instead of running for the goal line, Bean attempted a pass that sailed high through the end zone.
Daniels finished 37 of 55 for 544 total yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown. His six total touchdowns and passing-yardage total were new Liberty Bowl records.
With the loss, the Jayhawks (6-7, 3-5 Big 12) failed to finish over .500 for the 13th straight year. Kansas is now 6-7 in bowls and 0-2 in the Liberty Bowl.
Arkansas (7-6, 3-5 SEC) won a bowl for the second consecutive year, improving to 17-24-3 in postseason games. The Razorbacks are now 3-3 in the Liberty Bowl.
KU starts spring football on Feb. 28. The Jayhawks will have plenty of time to figure out how to improve their weaknesses.
Here is some instant reaction from the game:
Early mistakes put KU in a hole
For the first eight minutes of the first quarter, it felt like it could be anyone’s game. Then Arkansas took flight.
Razorback quarterback KJ Jefferson connected with wide receiver Matt Landers for a 59-yard touchdown pass on busted coverage by KU’s defensive back. That put Arkansas up 10-7 with 6:05 left in the first.
On the subsequent kickoff, KU fumbled the ball on the return, giving the Razorbacks the ball in the red zone. One play later, Jefferson found Ty Washington for a 17-yard touchdown.
On the Jayhawks’ next drive, Daniels marched KU down the field only to throw a pick. Arkansas responded with an 11-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to take a 24-7 lead.
The Razorbacks’ 24 first-period points were a Liberty Bowl record for a quarter.
Daniels’ tale of two halves
Daniels had quite a start to the game.
He led the Jayhawks on a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive on their first possession — KU led 7-3 at that point — but struggled through the remainder of the first half.
Early on, the Razorbacks did a great job of causing Daniels to force passes in tight windows. Daniels came into the game having thrown just two interceptions in 175 pass attempts but threw two in his first 14 attempts Wednesday.
He’s known for extending plays with his scrambling ability, but Arkansas mostly succeeded in containing him. Seemingly every time he left the pocket to buy himself time, Arkansas did just enough to disrupt his throws and prevent big runs.
In the second half, however, Daniels came alive. He progressed through his reads, didn’t force passes and converted crucial plays.
KU’s defense must improve
Kansas defensive coordinator Brian Borland expected Arkansas to run the ball plenty: Jefferson and star back Rahiem Sanders are both more than capable on the ground.
Sanders went out with an injury early in the game, but freshman Rashod Dubinion stepped into the Hogs’ backfield and wreaked his own havoc on the ground. Dubinion finished with 212 total yards.
Arkansas ran it well against KU and had no issues passing the ball, either. The Razorbacks racked up 31 points and 378 yards of offense in the first half.
On Monday, Borland mentioned how hard it would be to tackle Jefferson to the ground, and the Arkansas QB proved him right late in the second quarter. He broke two tackles en route to a 32-yard run.
KU lost the line-of-scrimmage battle
Arkansas’ line — on both sides of the ball — gave Kansas fits.
The Razorbacks’ defensive line pushed its way through a KU offensive line that had allowed just nine sacks all season. Arkansas sacked Daniels three times Wednesday night.
The Arkansas offensive line, meanwhile, created big holes for Jefferson and the Razorbacks’ running backs. Jefferson was not sacked and had ample time to throw.
Bowl berth meant a lot
Coming into the season, the Jayhawks were picked to finish last in the conference by the league’s coaches.
Few expected a bowl berth in coach Lance Leipold’s second season. It seemed that the only people who believed in KU were the Jayhawks’ players and coaches.
Making a bowl game should be celebrated as a huge step for the program. And the Jayhawks showed fight until the final whistle. They rallied from a monumental deficit and almost won the game.
The excitement around the program was palatable Wednesday evening. Perhaps 55% of the announced 52,847 fans at the game wore Kansas gear.
Now, Leipold has roughly two months to figure out what he needs from the transfer portal, and his staff, in order to take KU to the next level next season.
This story was originally published December 28, 2022 9:24 PM.