MEMPHIS – On a record-setting night in the Bluff City, Lance Leipold’s Kansas football team did not walk out off the Liberty Bowl with a win.

And make no mistake that is what the Jayhawks (6-7) wanted first and foremost in their battled with the Razorbacks (7-6).

But Kansas did leave with a lot of respect from the college football world after rallying from a 25-point deficit in the third quarter only to fall to Arkansas 55-53 in three overtimes on Wednesday night.

The 52,847 fans on hand were treated to the highest-scoring Liberty Bowl of all-time, the fourth-highest scoring bowl in college football history and a game ultimately decided a pair of two-point conversions.

“It was an outstanding game with an outstanding crowd,” Leipold said. “There was a lot of energy in the stadium tonight. Congratulations to (Arkansas head coach) Sam Pittman and his team. I am awfully proud of our team and the way we battled back, but unfortunately came up short.

“…I think people got their money’s worth. I’ll never be satisfied. Even if we were on the right side of the score tonight, there’d be plenty I’d want us to get better at, and I think anyone who’s competitive and wants to build a program for sustainable success would feel the same way.”

A new college football rule this season forces team to go for a two-part conversion in the second overtime and then dictates the game will then be decidd on two-point plays in any following overtime.

Arkansas quarterback and Liberty Bowl MVP KJ Jefferson (287 yards passing and 130 yards rushing) gave his team a 55-53 lead in the third overtime when he hit Rashod Dubinion with a two-point conversion pass.

It was expected Kansas would put the ball in hands of  quarterback Jalon Daniels, who set Liberty Bowl records of 544 yards passing and 565 yards total offense.

Instead the Jayhawks chose to run a reverse to back up quarterback Jason Bean, who did not see wide open tight end Mason Fairchild and instead sailed a pass high for a covered Lawrence Arnold that ended the game.

“Jason feels terrible,” Leipold said. “Everybody always looks at the last play, but there’s going to be plenty of plays that we could’ve performed better on that maybe didn’t even put us to that point.”

Leipold, whose team had just 59 yards rushing, later explained more of his reasoning of that final play call.

“On that last play, you know we struggled running the ball the whole day,” Leipold said. “We came up with a play that we had used before, a  reverse or Philly special – whatever people want to call it. I   really couldn’t  see exactly everything that Jason saw, whether he could run or not or try to make a throw and so it was incomplete.

“One other thing I can answer for that is when you go for a couple of two-point plays earlier and then you get in situations where you have to keep using two-point plays, you are going to go to different plays. You just don’t have a chart of six or 10 of them on your play-calling sheet.”

Daniels threw a Kansas single-game record five touchdowns against Arkansas, who the started the season 3-0, but then lost 6 of its last regular season outings.

“It was definitely a fun game to play,” Daniels said. “To be able to go into that many overtimes means that it’s a hell of a game. I’m sure right after that first half a lot of people counted us out. So, to be able to come back the way we did shows that we have a lot of grit on our team. But we didn’t get the outcome we wanted.

“…We wanted to win the game, so those statistics really do not matter. At the end of the day, the only statistic that matters is that win-loss column, and, sadly, we weren’t able to get to the win column.”

Arkansas took a 38-13 lead when Dubinion, who set career highs while rushing 20 times for 112 yards, crashed in from 2 yards out with 8:43 left in the third quarter.

The Razorbacks, who had 681 yards total offense to the Jayhawks’ 603, would not score again until overtime. 

“I think there were some things they were doing, you know, I don’t want to say conservative, but we started playing the run better and we were starting to get a few more people around the ball,” Leipold said.

It was a stunning reversal from Arkansas’ 31-13 halftime lead with the Razorback’s 24 first-quarter points setting a new Liberty Bowl record for most points in any quarter.

“We battled back early in some games this year, but nothing like this in the second half,” Leipold said. “At halftime, I wasn’t so much worried about how the score, but how we were going to finish the season. I wanted to play the way we can play and play hard for 30 minutes and finish it the right way.

“…I can’t tell you how proud I am for that effort and the resiliency that they showed and finding a way to make things happen.”

Kansas, who won its first five games before losing six of seven to end the regular season, had three first-half turnovers,  a pair that resulted in two Arkansas turnovers in eight seconds.

“I thought uncharacteristically we turned the ball over in the first half,” Leipold said. “You are always concerned about certain things when tying have a long layoff, how you are going to tackle, self-afflicted wounds and things like that.”

Ky Thomas started the comeback with a 2-yard touchdown run with 3:15 left quarter and then Owen Piepergerdes’ 37-yard field cut Kansas’ deficit to 38-23 with 14:03 remaining in the game.

Daniel connected  on 10-yard scoring toss with Douglas Emilien with 1:05 left and Piepergerdes’ PAT cut it to 38-30.

The Jayhawks recovered the onside kick and that  resulted in a 21-yard touchdown pass to Luke Grimm (10 catches, 167 yards) with 41 seconds left.

Daniels, who threw two interceptions in the first half,  then tied it 38-38 with a 2-point conversion pass to Arnold.

“The whole second half I played calm,” Daniels said. “I felt like in the first half there were a few times  where I played outside of myself.”

Leipold knew his signal caller and team were riding high emotionally headed into overtime.

“When the overtime hit, there was a sense of confidence about this group, especially with Jalon,” Leipold said.

Rich Miller, who led Kansas with 11 tackles, voiced that same sentiment.

“I’m never done until the game’s over,” Miller said. “I don’t care if we’re down by 100. He (Daniels) came over and said, ‘We said we were going to give our all until the game’s over.’ And I said, ‘And it still ain’t over. We’ve got more to give.’ And we tried to go out there and give our best.”

Leipold said the locker room scene after the game was tough.

“They are down, a lot of tears, certainly the seniors with a lot of tears,” Leipold said. “Jason feels terrible. But it’s not one play although everybody always looks back at the last play. We could have performed better to that point.”

Photo by John D. James