By Land or by Air
Progress is a relative term.
That fact notwithstanding, it feels strange to kick off an article talking about the progress made by a 1-10 football team.
The Kansas Jayhawks have indeed shown signs of evolution under first-year head coach Charlie Weis. Granted, you might not discern them at first glance. After all, a loss to West Virginia Saturday would actually leave the Jayhawks one win short of last year’s grand total of two. Believe it or not, however, if you hold this team up to the light and look closely enough at just the right angle, you’ll start to see subtle hints of growth.
Unlike the 2011 Jayhawks squad that dropped 10 games by an average margin of 28 points per loss, this year’s team does – despite its equally unimpressive record - have some bite. The Jayhawks led MAC title-game participant Northern Illinois (11-1) by 10 on the road before a fourth quarter meltdown cost them the game. They fought Oklahoma State and Texas to the bitter end and shredded Texas Tech for almost 400 yards rushing before losing to the Red Raiders in overtime.
As you might expect from a program in transition, Kansas has landed on the business end of its share of one-sided demolitions this year (56-16 loss at K-State; 52-7 loss at Oklahoma; 51-23 loss to Iowa State), but the Jayhawks have also punched above their weight several times. In fact, half of KU’s 10 losses have actually been by a touchdown or less.
One thing that connects the competitive nature of those hard-fought defeats has been KU’s uncanny ability to toss cold water onto key scoring threats by the opposition. This nifty aptitude has coordinator Dave Campo’s unit ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in red zone defense.
Here are a few examples:
• TCU 20, KANSAS 6: This game was close for the balance of 60 minutes in large part because Kansas turned the Horned Frogs away in the red zone four times, including three fumbles inside the 10-yard line.
• OKLAHOMA STATE 20, KANSAS 14: Kansas came up with a big stop in the first quarter when OSU was driving with an eye toward setting the tone in a scoreless game. The Cowboys faced a fourth and 1 at the Jayhawks 16-yard line and - behind what many regard as the most physical offensive line in the Big 12 - Oklahoma State handed the football to all-conference running back Joseph Randle. Randle took the ball downhill between the tackles but was met abruptly by free safety Bradley McDougald and a wall of Kansas defenders. No gain. Jayhawks football.
• TEXAS 21, KANSAS 17: Two key stops in this game helped the Jayhawks fend off Texas for more than 59 minutes. The first came early in the third quarter with KU leading 14-7. The Longhorns faced a fourth and goal from the Kansas 1-yard line. Texas went big, trotting three tight ends onto the field. The Longhorns handed the football to Joe Bergeron with a fullback out in front. He got nothing. The Jayhawks stood Bergeron up at the line of scrimmage before driving him back to the two for a loss on the play.
• The Texas defense immediately forced a three and out and – just like that – the Horns had the ball back, threatening once more to tie the game. Six snaps later, Texas was again in the red zone – this time facing a third and 7 at the Kansas 17-yard line. Out of a four-receiver set, Horns quarterback David Ash took the snap and let sail a quick throw to the short side of the field. The toss was designed to spring loose Texas receiver Mike Davis on a slip screen. Kansas showed blitz but on the snap it dropped eight into coverage, perhaps startling Ash as his throw was off the mark by half a step. The ball careened into the air off the backhand of Davis and was quickly gobbled up by Jayhawks defensive back Lubbock Smith. Two straight red zone trips by Texas and two straight rejections by Kansas.
• TEXAS TECH 41, KANSAS 34 (OT): Nursing a 27-24 lead with just under five minutes remaining in regulation, the Red Raiders faced a fourth down and 2 from the Jayhawks 12-yard line. Instead of opting for the field goal, Texas Tech went for the kill – but it backfired. From the shotgun, Raiders signal caller Seth Doege handed the ball to Eric Stephens and KU instantly launched half a dozen bodies at the point of attack. The penetration by Kansas defensive lineman Jordan Tevai and a host of others forced a quick cut by Stephens, then a dive. When the pile was cleared, Texas Tech was a yard short of the first down. Kansas capitalized on the stop, driving for a field goal that sent the game into overtime.
The moral of this tale? When you reach the red zone against this crew - take the points.
It’s a story Dana Holgorsen is familiar with.
“They [the Jayhawks] bow up and play good defense in the red zone. We did a good job of getting points in the red zone last week, and we will have to do more of the same this week,” said Holgorsen. “Kansas does a lot of similar things to Iowa State. It is a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Field goals were important last week, so if we need to settle for the points, we will.”
Kansas might take an elastic bend-but-don’t-break approach defensively, but there’s nothing flexible about the Jayhawks strategy on the other side of the football.
“The best players on our team are our running backs,” said Weis. “We have morphed away from being a 50-50 team to being clearly a run-first team.”
The Jayhawks step off the bus running the football. They’ll run it with motion, they’ll run it from the spread and they’ll run it from a conventional I-formation. They’ll run the zone, they’ll run the power game and they’ll run the option.
All of this has Kansas ranked in the top 20 in rushing for the first time since 2006. KU’s feature back (James Sims) is poised to become the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher in five years and has hit the century mark six times in his last seven games. The Jayhawks’ No. 2 runner (Tony Pierson) is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and three weeks ago he gashed Texas Tech for more than 200 yards. With the versatile Michael Cummings under center, KU has rushed for 234 or more yards in each of its last four games and has registered at least one run of 55 yards or longer in all of those contests.
In short, for a 1-win team heading into December, Kansas is surprisingly good at one very critical part of the game of football – the running part.
Despite all that, Weis had to be huffing and puffing as he studied West Virginia’s defense this week. The first year coach has done right by the Jayhawks offense by grinding it out and playing to the team’s greatest strength (depth at the running back position). But the passing game is still in his DNA.
With Tom Brady at his disposal in New England a decade ago, a steady diet of pitching-and-catching was what Weis used to help direct the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins as the team’s offensive coordinator. After that stop, Weis took over the head coaching post at Notre Dame. In South Bend, he implemented an offense that allowed Irish signal caller Brady Quinn to throw for more than 7,300 yards in two years and earn a spot in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Even when Weis was ousted from Notre Dame after a 6-6 finish in 2009, it wasn’t due to his team’s inability to throw the football. The Irish were fifth in the country in passing offense that year and quarterback Jimmy Clausen finished third in passing efficiency.
Considering all of this, it’s easy to imagine Weis’ hand squeezing the clicker just a little bit tighter this week as he watched on tape a WVU defense that ranks 120th in the country against the pass (346 yards per game). Through 11 games the Mountaineers have allowed 36 touchdown throws (only Colorado has yielded more with 39) and a staggering 43 completions of 25 yards or longer. Adding injury to insult is the fact that West Virginia’s secondary, young and already short-handed, will this week be without the services of cornerback Ishmael Banks – a starter in the last four games.
Weis is no doubt itching at the enticing thought of abandoning the run-first approach that he’s shown for the last six weeks against the Mountaineers on Saturday. The notion of re-inserting former five-star Notre Dame recruit Dayne Crist into the mix, spreading the field and unveiling a go-for-broke game plan against West Virginia’s besieged secondary has no doubt crossed Weis’ mind several times in the two weeks since the Jayhawks last played.
Don’t think for a moment it hasn’t.
But this time around when the gunslinger walks by the shooting gallery, he may have to keep on walking.
The dilemma for Weis is that Kansas doesn’t have the personnel to fully take advantage of WVU’s blemishes against the pass. Not only is KU handicapped by an offensive line yielding a sack every 11.4 pass attempts, but the Jayhawks aren’t blessed with many playmakers on the perimeter either. Beyond senior wideout Kale Pick, who leads the team with just 25 catches, Kansas lacks dependable targets in the passing game. Outside of Pick, the Jayhawks receiving corps has a touch of experience and a hint of production, but not both in any one player. In fact, in a statistic that ranks among the most madcap you will see, not a single KU wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass this season.
The Kansas passing game has simply lacked the “bang!” needed to help win games in the Big 12 this year. And even when Crist was the starter earlier in the season, KU ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in most key passing categories. The Jayhawks are last in the country in passing efficiency and only New Mexico and Army have thrown fewer touchdowns this year than the seven mustered so far by Kansas.
But who knows? With so little to lose (except of course a 21st straight road game) maybe Weis won’t let roster shortcomings get in the way of some pass-happy fun in Morgantown. Much stranger things have happened than seeing the Jayhawks abandon their old-school ways against WVU’s embattled pass defense and come out this weekend slinging it all over the yard. I’m not holding my breath. It’s more likely that – to scratch his aerial itch - Weis will have to settle for a few extra play action shots downfield out of an option set.
Whether Kansas attacks by land or by air, rest assured West Virginia will be looking to do its own share of both. With a healthy Shawne Alston back in the fold, complimented by the X-factor of Tavon Austin popping in and out of the backfield, expect the Mountaineers to test the Jayhawks front seven early and often. The key is keeping Kansas off balance. The Jayhawks are adept at shifting numbers into the box to their advantage on what they regard as obvious running downs. When it guesses wrong and fails to stack the line with said reinforcements, however, Kansas has been sliced up like a holiday ham, allowing 5.2 yards per rush overall and a bulky 5.9 per carry on the road. A robust WVU ground game could set the table for a big show from 11,000-yard passer Geno Smith as he and 21 fellow seniors suit up for their final game at Mountaineer Field – a venue that has seen Smith toss 60 career touchdowns.
Here’s hoping for a fistful more.
See you at the fifty.
West Viginia Mountaineers, WVU, Dana Holgorsen, Kansas, Charlie Weis, Big 12 football
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