LAWRENCE — The question wiped the smile off Khalil Herbert’s face in an instant.
Known for his upbeat demeanor and seemingly permanent grin, Herbert had every reason to sport a smirk Saturday on the heels of a 291-yard, two-touchdown ground effort that put him in the Kansas football record books as the third-best single-game rushing performance in program history.
After talking at length about that personal feat in his postgame interview, the sophomore running back was then posed the following question: Would this personal milestone feel sweeter had the Jayhawks finished off a comeback that at one point seemed improbable, then possible, then lost to time in yet another double-digit defeat?
The mood changed.
“Definitely,” acknowledged Herbert, his voice getting softer and his expression going flat. “Definitely would be better.”
On the heels of KU’s announced $350 million, five-year campaign focused primarily on renovating Memorial Stadium, the Jayhawks dug too deep a hole Saturday against West Virginia. KU fell into a 25-point deficit, clawed back to make it a one-score affair midway through the fourth quarter, then unraveled again in an eventual 56-34 home defeat.
Herbert’s Herculean effort — his 291 rushing yards, netted on 36 carries, was the highest total in FBS this season — was for naught.
“Some good things in there, but not enough,” KU coach David Beaty said. “For that game to get out of hand there late, man, that’s disappointing. I know our guys are hurting and we as a staff are just not happy about that because we really don’t feel like that game played that way.”
KU, which came in as a 21½-point underdog, spotted WVU a 25-point lead thanks to another dire first-half performance.
Unlike the previous two weeks, though, which resulted in double-digit losses to Mid-American Conference foes, the Jayhawks (1-3) showed resolve, scoring 17 unanswered points to cut the deficit to one score, 42-34, midway through the fourth quarter.
But the Mountaineers (3-1) marched right down the field on their ensuing possession, a six-play, 72-yard drive capped by a 3-yard rushing score from quarterback Will Grier that put WVU up 49-34 with 5:16 to play.
Looking to answer, KU quarterback Peyton Bender was sacked and fumbled the ball on the first play of the following possession. Given a short field, Grier again found the end zone on another 3-yard scoring scamper that gave the game its final 22-point margin.
Asked if he’s encouraged by the rally or discouraged by the way it all fell apart, Beaty’s answer was twofold.
“I am seeing improvement, which is good,” Beaty said. “Very discouraged about that fourth quarter, because that’s not how I felt like that game should’ve ended up.”
Herbert paced a KU rushing attack that averaged 7.3 yards per carry, but Bender finished 17-for-32 passing for 197 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, including a costly pick-six thrown too high for Steven Sims on a wide receiver screen with 36 seconds left in the first half, making it a 35-10 hole.
“We had an unfortunate play there toward the end of the first half that, man, it was a booger,” Beaty said. “It killed you. You give up a touchdown on a pick-six. Man, that’s unfortunate.”
Grier finished 25-for-39 passing for 347 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Justin Crawford (125 rushing yards, one touchdown), Kennedy McCoy (105 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and David Sills (130 receiving yards, two touchdowns) gashed the work-in-progress KU defense.
“As much as I know it may be difficult just for the average fan to see, I see the improvement. I see some improvement going on out there in all three phases,” Beaty said. “We’ve got to make a lot of progress quicker because this is a tough conference, but that’s a good football team. That’s a good football team down there, and they can put points on the board pretty quick as they did in the fourth quarter.”
The Jayhawks stayed within striking distance early but collapsed in the second quarter en route to another big halftime deficit, this time 35-13.
After forcing the Mountaineers to punt on their first possession, the KU defense wilted, allowing four straight touchdown drives that went at least 80 yards. WVU converted five of seven third-down attempts and piled up 357 yards of total offense in the half, part of 635 for the game.
The Jayhawk offense, meanwhile, got 193 first-half yards from Herbert but also had three false starts in the period, including one ahead of its first play from scrimmage and two more before would-be fourth-down attempts.
All told, KU was penalized eight times for 43 yards, including a costly fourth-quarter offsides by defensive end Dorance Armstrong on a field goal attempt that extended a WVU drive. The Mountaineers scored two plays later to make the margin 42-27.
“We know it’s not athletically that we’re struggling,” Beaty said of the penalties. “We know that athletically we can do it. It’s just managing the mental part of the game and being a smart football team.”
Herbert, Sims and running back Taylor Martin scored the Jayhawks’ second-half touchdowns.
“I’ll tell you this: We’re improving, and we’re going to continue to fight,” said Beaty, whose Jayhawks are entering a bye week. “We’re getting better in a lot of areas, but we’re just not there yet. I hate it for our fans, I hate it for our stakeholders, ’cause they deserve better than that. But there’s a lot of improvement in areas, just not enough yet, you know?
“Not enough to win that game today. And that’s unfortunate because I thought it was a really, really evenly matched game to be honest with you. I felt like it should’ve been a lot closer than it ended up being. That’s disappointing.”
West Virginia … 7 … 28 … 0 … 21 … — … 56
Kansas … 3 … 10 … 14 … 7 … — … 34
KAN — FG Rui 28, 8:59
WVU — McKoy 7 run (Molina kick), 3:37
WVU — Crawford 11 run (Molina kick), 13:14
WVU — McKoy 23 run (Molina kick), 8:56
WVU — D.Sills 49 pass from Grier (Molina kick), 5:17
KAN — Herbert 67 run (Rui kick), 4:11
WVU — Daniels 25 interception return (Molina kick), :36
KAN — FG Rui 41, :00
KAN — Herbert 5 run (Rui kick), 9:02
KAN — Martin 1 run (Rui kick), 3:22
WVU — D.Sills 7 pass from Grier (Molina kick), 11:02
KAN — Sims 7 pass from Bender (Rui kick), 7:35
WVU — Grier 3 run (Molina kick), 5:16
WVU — Grier 3 run (Molina kick), 5:16
A — 23,901.
GAME IN FIGURES
… WVU … KAN
First downs … 32 … 24
Rushes-yards … 43-288 … 50-367
Passing … 347 … 197
Comp-Att-Int … 25-39-1 … 17-34-2
Return Yards … 62 … 59
Punts-Avg. … 5-36.0 … 6-37.66
Fumbles-Lost … 1-0 … 1-1
Penalties-Yards … 4-42 … 8-43
Time of Possession … 29:27 … 30:33
RUSHING — West Virginia, Crawford 18-125, McKoy 12-105, Grier 10-51, Pettaway 3-7. Kansas, Herbert 36-291, Martin 11-59, D.Williams 1-14, Bender 2-3.
PASSING — West Virginia, Grier 25-39-1-347. Kansas, Sims 0-1-0-0, Bender 17-32-2-197, (Team) 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — West Virginia, D.Sills 8-130, Jennings 6-75, Simms 4-68, Ka.White 3-36, Crawford 2-25, McKoy 1-7, Bush 1-6. Kansas, Sims 6-96, Patrick 3-22, Booker 2-24, B.Johnson 1-23, Fairs 1-12, Schadler 1-9, Herbert 1-5, Martin 1-4, Ke.Johnson 1-2.
LEADING TACKLERS — West Virginia, Benton 11 solo, 1 assist, 12 total; Daniels 6-0-6; Gross 6-0-6. Kansas, Dineen 11-3-14; Lee 10-0-10; Torneden 7-2-9.
SACKS — West Virginia, McDougle. Kansas, Dineen.
INTERCEPTIONS — West Virginia, Benton, Daniels. Kansas, Defense.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — None.
Top single-game KU rushing performances
Name, year … Yards … Opponent, date
1. Tony Sands, Sr. … 396 … vs. Missouri, 11-23-91
2. Nolan Cromwell, Jr. … 294 … vs. Oregon St., 9-27-75
3. Khalil Herbert, So. … 291 … vs. West Virginia, 9-23-17
4. Gale Sayers, So. … 283 … vs. Oklahoma St., 10-27-62
5. David Winbush, So. … 268 … vs. Colorado, 10-24-98