LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The Sunflower Showdown between Kansas State and Kansas hasn’t been much of a showdown over the past decade or so.
That's because the Jayhawks have rarely shown up.
The Wildcats have not lost to their rival since the 2008 season, just before Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder returned for his second stint in charge. And nothing changed when Chris Klieman took over four years ago, adding four wins to make it 14 straight and by an average margin of more than four touchdowns per game.
Yet few think their matchup Saturday will be just another blowout.
While the No. 23 Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) are tied for second in the conference and still in the hunt to defend their Big 12 title, the Jayhawks (7-3, 4-3) are among the teams one game back. And with identical overall records, the two teams are on remarkably even footing as they resume the fourth-oldest continuously played rivalry in the Bowl Subdivision.
“We're just going to keep working on closing that gap and see where it turns out,” Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold said. “It was our responsibility to make this rivalry a better game and I think we're taking those steps, but we have to go out and play that way.”
It won't be easy if the Jayhawks are missing Jason Bean.
Bean was No. 2 on the depth chart to start the season, but he's deftly guided Kansas most of the way while starter Jalon Daniels deals with a back injury. Then came last Saturday's game against Texas Tech, when Bean sustained what Leipold called “a head injury” and walk-on freshman Cole Ballard played the rest of the way in a last-minute 16-13 loss.
Leipold expressed optimism Monday that Bean would be able to play, then backtracked the following day on a local radio show, saying that "Cole will be ready to go, and that’s probably the direction we’re going to have to plan on at this moment.”
Klieman doesn't think the Jayhawks' approach will change no matter who is under center.
“I know it was a smaller sample size,” Klieman said, “but I really didn't think they changed a whole lot offensively when (Ballard) came in last week. It's still what they do. They're having a lot of success on offense with whomever played quarterback, so in my mind, those kids offensively believe in what they're doing. Why would you change it?”
One thing the Jayhawks would like to change: Their losing streak in the series.
“We know how important the game is,” Klieman said. “All those things don't have to be said, don't have to be talked about. But it still comes down to you better not take any shortcuts, you better focus on your preparation and attack today.”
Kansas State could still wiggle its way back into the Big 12 title game but needs to beat Kansas and Iowa State the next two weeks and get some help. The Wildcats and Cyclones are in a logjam of 5-2 teams with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, one of the two conference teams — Big 12-leading Texas is the other — to beat Kansas State this season.
Along with Bean, the Jayhawks are uncertain whether they will have reliable wide receiver Luke Grimm available. Kansas State will be without Jake Clifton, who joined fellow linebackers Daniel Green and Asa Newsome with season-ending injuries.
It will be the final game for many Jayhawks, such as safety Kenny Logan Jr., who helped to turn around the program. Logan played two seasons under Les Miles before he was fired, then played for Leipold the past three. This will be the first time in his five years on campus that the Jayhawks will finish with a winning record.
The game also will be the last game at Memorial Stadium, which opened in October 1921 and is among the oldest in major college football, before a massive renovation completely transforms it. The construction will begin after the game and continue through next season before finishing up in time for the start of the 2025 season.
Kansas State has won all five of its home games easily this season, but the road has been a different matter. They lost on a last-second 62-yard field goal at Missouri, then fell behind early at Oklahoma State and Texas before comeback bids came up short. Their only road win came at Texas Tech, when they trailed in the third quarter before scoring three unanswered touchdowns.