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Saturday was a bit awkward for Turner Gill -- not in the same sense as the first time he introduced himself to Nebraska football fans 29 years ago, but awkward nonetheless.

Saturday morning, Gill stayed at the Kansas hotel as the Jayhawks did a walkthrough at Memorial Stadium. Too many potential distractions, maybe.

Hours later, the Jayhawks took the field with the same mind-set as their coach.

"Cool Coach Gill," wide receiver Bradley McDougald said Saturday night after the KU had battled gamely before losing 20-3. "He was flat line -- not high, not low."

Totally immersed -- not altogether different from 1981, when, as a sophomore quarterback for the Huskers, he found himself inserted into the lineup to start the third quarter of the fourth game of the season.

Nebraska trailed Auburn 3-0 on that rainy day, and though Gill was more a manager of the offense at that point in his career, he still engineered a 17-3 win.

Folks didn't know it at the time, but a legend was born.

The next week, Gill made his first start and threw four touchdown passes in a 59-0 drubbing of Colorado that would start an unbeaten run through the Big Eight.

Nebraska, in fact, never lost a Big Eight game under Gill, who finished his career 28-2 as the starter. Not surprisingly, he eventually returned to NU and spent 13 seasons as an assistant before blazing his own trail -- one that last December led him to accept an offer to lead the Kansas program. The Jayhawks were in need of a trusting father figure amid allegations their former coach had been verbally and physically abusive to some players.

"It's been a tough road for us," defensive end Toben Opurum said Saturday.

But already, the sophomore is seeing fewer rough patches.

Kansas -- which was held to 87 yards Saturday while being led by a third-team quarterback -- is not ready to challenge for Big 12 titles. But neither are the Jayhawks anywhere close to being the team that lost their debut under Gill to North Dakota State 6-3.

So how much are Gill and his coaching staff responsible for the baby-step progress?

"A lot of it," Opurum said. "They're still trying to figure out personnel."

Even in that challenging reality, the Jayhawks somehow managed to knock off then-No. 15 Georgia Tech the week after they lost their opener. Last week, they also produced a miracle by scoring the final 35 points -- all in the fourth quarter -- to beat Colorado.

No one's about to erect a statue of Gill for becoming the third of Kansas' last seven coaches to win at least three games in a rookie season. But if you look closely, you can see a foundation being laid that figures to bode well for the Jayhawks.

Kansas, which in the previous four games had given up 16 touchdowns in 18 red zone chances, was a 35-point underdog Saturday.

The setup reminded me of 1992, when Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones' team limped into Lincoln with the main goal being to get in and out as quickly as possible. That day, the Cowboys ran the ball 56 times and threw it three en route to a 55-0 loss.

Saturday, Gill had the Jayhawks try for a first down on fourth-and-6 from the Nebraska 35-yard line. And while the play failed, there was no surrender until there was no time remaining on the clock.

After the game came another awkward moment ... hearing Gill talk about being proud of "our team," and how "our guys played well, played tough and hard throughout," realizing the reference had nothing to do with the Huskers.

His old coach, who considering hiring him to lead Nebraska three years ago, would have been proud.

"Wished me success today," Gill said of a telephone conversation he had with Tom Osborne, "and keep on moving forward."

Reach Curt McKeever at cmckeever@journalstar.com or 402-473-7441.