MIAMI — The Kansas Jayhawks answered their critics in the only way that counts, on the field with a victory in a game that many said they didn't even deserve to play.
"I think all the doubters are quiet now," quarterback Todd Reesing screamed, still barely making himself heard in the tumult and melee on the field at Dolphin Stadium.
"They can't say nothing now! We won 12 games. We beat Virginia Tech. We're Orange Bowl champs, baby!"
By beating the No. 5 Hokies 24-21 Thursday night, the No. 8 Jayhawks put to rest any notion that they had used a pillowy-soft schedule to construct a deceitfully good record that kept some better team - namely Missouri - out of a BCS bowl.
Losing in their first major bowl in 39 years would have given the Jayhawks no defense.
Beating the ACC champion Hokies, who were playing in their 15th straight bowl, erases all doubt.
"I guess they got to say we played somebody now!" said All-American cornerback Aqib Talib, whose 60-yard interception return gave Kansas a 7-0 lead. "They got to say we played somebody now!"
All season long, accusations that they were padding their stats with a soft schedule provided the only sour note in an otherwise magical season for the Jayhawks and their coaches.
Kansas (12-1) had been the only Big 12 team to play all four nonconference games at home, and what pushovers those four did prove to be. Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International offered almost no resistance. The Jayhawks didn't even have to leave the state until they played at Baylor in mid-October.
Because of the conference rotation system, this was also the season they didn't have to play Big 12 powers Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
And so as the victories piled up and the Jayhawks rose higher in the national polls, critics kept up their drumbeat.
"I think it did bother them," defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "We weren't going to admit it, but sure it did."
Although the game had its back-and-forth moments, the Jayhawks refused to give in to the Hokies or their own critics. A turning point may have been when linebacker Joe Mortensen blocked a field goal that would have forged a 17-17 tie.
"This is as good a win as I've ever seen my whole life," Young said. "It was wonderful. I'm so happy for the players."
With Reesing throwing for one touchdown and running for another on a cool, rainy night in South Florida, the Jayhawks made the point they'd been hungering all season to make.
"Man, I can't tell you how much this means to me and the rest of these guys," said senior tight end Derek Fine, who suffered through the early, lean years of coach Mark Mangino's patient rebuilding project.
"We worked hard. We've come a long way to 12-1. We're the first Kansas team to win 12 games. This is huge for our program. I've watched this program grow. I'm just so proud to be part of it."
When the Jayhawks lost their regular-season finale to Missouri by eight points, their critics sat back and smugly claimed vindication because the Tigers, clearly, had turned out to be the only standout on their schedule.
Then when Missouri beat Arkansas 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl, the critics set up their loudest howl.
"They were wrong, man," All-American left tackle Anthony Collins said. "We worked hard just like everybody else. We're a great team with great coaches and we earned this. We deserve everything we've got. And we weren't worried about Missouri, either. All we were thinking about was Virginia Tech."
No Kansas team had ever won 12 games in a season. And now no Kansas critic can make Jayhawks fans feel they have any reason to apologize.
"This validates everything we've done," Fine said. "Any doubts that we didn't belong on top are gone. We belonged here. This wasn't any fluke. We're for real."