LAWRENCE — The ball clanked off Joe Dineen's hands, and moments later, the Kansas senior linebacker was in teammate Daniel Wise’s arms.
The sequence — an oh-so-close takeaway that could’ve very well turned into a pick-six late in the first quarter of Friday afternoon’s game against No. 11 Texas at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium — was emblematic of an era that ended in an eventual 24-17 defeat, the final game under outgoing head coach David Beaty. As has been the case across much of Beaty’s four-year tenure, the margin between narrative-bending upset victory and the actual outcome was razor-thin.
Victory, once again, was just out of the Jayhawks’ grasp.
“That sucks,” Dineen said of the dropped interception. “Looking back, the one thing I’m going to regret so much is not scoring a touchdown here, and if I would’ve caught that, I probably would’ve scored a touchdown.”
Instead, Dineen jogged into the arms of the defensive tackle and fellow senior Wise, who pulled him in for a hug and delivered comforting encouragement — “Come on, come on, come on, come on the sideline,” Wise said. “We’ve got a lot of ball left to play now.”
Three-plus quarters, to be exact. And as it turned out, it wouldn't be the last time the two embraced.
As Dineen fielded questions for the final time inside the Chancellor’s Lounge at Anderson Family Football Complex, Wise walked into the area. Instead of going across the room to his set-aside table designated with a placard displaying his name and position, Wise skirted protocol by parking himself right next to Dineen.
Wise threw his right arm around Dineen. Both smiled.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet, just the fact I won’t be playing again with these guys, really,” Wise said. “The toughest thing really is just not coming away with a win. Obviously on senior day, we wanted to get it like we did it two years ago (in a 24-21 overtime victory over Texas). Still grateful for the opportunity to play at Kansas. Still grateful for every snap and every down that we took, and never looking back and regretting a thing we did.”
The Longhorns secured their spot in the Big 12 championship game Dec. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, by jumping out to a 21-0 advantage and holding on just enough to keep a furious fourth-quarter KU (3-9, 1-8 Big 12) rally at bay. The Jayhawks, who lost three games this season by one score or less, simply ran out of time, failing to recover a second onside kick with 97 seconds remaining.
The reality of the situation hit Dineen as he jogged off the field. What followed was an emotional postgame locker room, where Beaty and every assistant coach delivered two messages to their players: We love you, and stick this thing out.
“They just told us to stick together, don’t go looking for other places, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” recalled senior quarterback Peyton Bender, who finished 18-for-35 passing for 159 yards with one touchdown and one interception. “Honor these people that have been here by sticking together and getting this thing turned around.”
It was a message that, despite his outgoing status and likely future playing on Sundays, resonated with Wise.
“Things might not look, from the outside looking in, may not look appealing, may not look good. People be saying things here and there, people are leaving,” Wise said. “But the guys in that locker room, that brotherhood has to stick together in order to get this thing turned around, and I think we’ve got a chance next year and the years to come.”
Friday’s finale followed an all-to-familiar script for KU under Beaty, whose overall record fell to 6-42.
The Longhorns (9-3, 7-2) took a 7-0 lead into halftime thanks to an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the game. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who finished the game 16-for-28 passing with 154 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, threw his first on a 26-yard strike to wideout Collin Johnson.
The Jayhawk defense recovered from that opening-series stumble to hold Texas off the scoreboard the rest of the half and limit the Longhorns to just 2.61 yards per play in their ensuing four drives, but the KU offense couldn’t take advantage, punting on six of its first seven drives, the last on the team’s first possession of the second half. KU’s defenders could hold no longer, as Ehlinger authored a pair of third-quarter touchdowns — a 5-yard pass to Andrew Beck and a 3-yard designed run — to put the Longhorns up 21-0 entering the fourth.
KU finally got on the board on the second play of the final period as electric running back Pooka Williams bounced outside and turned on the afterburners on a 57-yard touchdown scamper. Williams finished the game with a 16-carry, 103-yard effort on the ground, capping his true freshman campaign with 1,125 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns — seven rushing, two receiving and one passing.
“I’m humbled and just fortunate to have been around a lot of players in my career over 24, 25 years, and man, he is spectacular,” Beaty said of Williams. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a back like this guy. He’s certainly got potential to be one of those guys hoisting a big trophy down the road if he continues to do what he’s doing.”
KU cornerback Shak Taylor turned Williams’ glimmer of hope into all-out excitement, picking off Ehlinger on the Longhorns’ ensuing drive. But with his team set up at the Texas 22-yard line, Bender threw a pass that was tipped and intercepted by Longhorn linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch and returned to the KU 25.
Cameron Dicker banged through a 34-yard field goal to push Texas’ advantage to 24-7 with 10:57 left.
“Great play by Shak; terrific play by the kid from Texas,” Beaty said of the double-turnover sequence. “We got Steven Sims running wide open right behind him (and) the dude kind of ducks down and we really can't see him and Peyton's going to put the ball right on him and the guy jumps up and tips it and tips it right to himself, makes a play. And that's kind of what happens, but our defense answered the bell again.”
KU didn’t roll over and die, scoring twice late on a 31-yard strike from Bender to wideout Daylon Charlot and on a 45-yard field goal by Gabriel Rui, an onside kick recovery sandwiched between. But the Longhorns recovered KU’s second onside attempt and kneeled their way to next weekend’s conference championship.
For KU, the immediate future is incoming head coach Les Miles, introduced last Sunday as the next man up in the program’s decade-long search for a football fixer. Beaty in his postgame news conference declined an opportunity to say what message he’d deliver to Miles if he had a chance, but he did deliver a very on-brand comment in his final public remark as Jayhawk coach.
“I'll just say that whether I'm talking to coach Miles or a man off the street,” Beaty said, “that if you want a good man, go get a Kansas football player.”
That very mentality — go get a Kansas football player — could be on the minds of NFL general managers this spring when they consider both Dineen and Wise as potential selections in the league’s upcoming draft. Both have undoubtedly improved their standing among scouts this season, finishing one-two in tackles-for-loss in KU history, respectively.
Friday, though? All either could think about was the end.
“I’m proud of the way we battled all year,” Dineen said. “I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I have had here at KU for anything. KU’s been really good to me, and hopefully I reciprocated that with the way I played.”