Duke-Kansas always makes for a compelling matchup on hardwood, not turf. But their meeting on Saturday was, strangely, one of the most intriguing games on the college football slate. The Blue Devils, 3-9 last year but 3-0 to start this season, rode into a sold-out David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium hoping to repeat their 52–33 home win over the Jayhawks last year. But this was a very different Kansas football team than anyone’s seen in well over a decade. With wins so far over Tennessee Tech, West Virginia, and Houston, a victory over Duke would give KU, already, its most wins since 2009.
This program briefly saw sunlight in the late ’00s under Mark Mangino, who’d resign after both a dip in performance and allegations that he was an asshole to players. And ever since then, even as they cycled through famous names like Charlie Weis and Les Miles, they’ve been the punching bag of the Big 12, failing even to win two games in that conference in each of the last 13 seasons. But in Lance Leipold’s second year on the job after arriving from Buffalo, the Jayhawks are exciting, fun, and probably on track for a long-awaited reappearance in the top 25.
In front of that rare packed house against Duke, third-year quarterback Jalon Daniels delivered a star-making performance, aerially and terrestrially dominating the Devils’ defense to ensure that his team was always one step ahead in the eventual 35-27 Kansas win. The Jayhawks QB displayed a chameleonic ability to be whatever kind of weapon his offense needed him to be. He made traditional pocket passes with confidence and accuracy, understood how to create openings with improvisation, and baffled the defense by serving as one of three effective Kansas ball-carriers on smartly designed runs. Daniels’s final stat line was pretty damn close to flawless: 19-of-23 passing for 324 yards and four TDs, plus 11 rushes for 83 yards and another score, with zero turnovers.
On top of that tangible greatness, Daniels was just fun to watch—unpredictable every time he prepared for a snap, yet always able to move the ball downfield. In the constant stream of impressive moments he produced, it was this sweet throw under pressure that perhaps best summarized what he could do.
This isn’t to say that Kansas is suddenly a national championship threat. When the Jayhawks made themselves one-dimensional and committed completely to the run, as they did in an early goal-to-go situation and later when trying to drain the clock, the Duke defense could stop them. And the team’s renaissance seems mostly limited to the offense, as their relatively unimpressive defensive showings mean these guys are going to have to regularly expect to hang up 40 or more to earn a win.
But in a Big 12 playing this season under the gloomy existential threat of Oklahoma and Texas’s scheduled departures for the SEC, both Kansas and Kansas State are injecting it with some new life. For years, the state of Kansas’s closest connection to relevancy in the football world has come from people mistaking where the Chiefs play. This Saturday, though, the Wildcats scored the day’s biggest upset when they went on the road to rock the No. 6 Sooners, and KU became the only 4-0 team in the entire conference. There’s a lot left for the Jayhawks to do if they really want to prove they’re for real, but that in-state matchup in Manhattan on the last day of the season—a rivalry dominated by K-State over the last three decades—already looks a lot more exciting than it has in a long, long time.