What better way to start a Kansas preview than with a little 90s Roots Rock courtesy of the eponymous Jayhawks?
And it nicely encapsulates how Kansas football has been feeling of late. The halcyon days of Todd Reesing and BCS bowl wins seem so very far away for Jayhawk fans.
Always thought I was someone, turns out I was wrong...
The 1-6 (0-4 Big 12) Jayhawks stand between Texas and bowl eligibility. Buffalo Wild Wings bowls hinge on this contest. Vegas certainly believes that this is a guaranteed win, but the boys in, and feeling, blue also scheduled us for their Homecoming game. What's going on here? What does Charlie Weis know that we don't?
Let's dive into some of the key considerations for the game.
They run the ball fairly well. Their passing game resembles the Jerry Springer show when the Aryan Brotherhood ex-con comes out to find out the results of a black woman's paternity test and her brothers are all starting to lean forward in their chairs...
QB Michael Cummings
The 5-10, 200 pound signal caller will have his 2nd start at QB for the Jayhawks, replacing Notre Dame's answer to Garrett Gilbert, Dayne Crist. Cummings is mobile, runs well, and is woefully inexperienced for the college game, receiving his baptism under fire as a starter against OU last week (10 of 21, 111 yards, 2 ints).
He gives them a legitimate running threat on the perimeter, in the draw game, and running zone read, and he has a lively downfield arm. Running QBs have slaughtered us, mostly because since the Wyoming game, we've assigned QB option responsibility to general pursuit and don't understand the concept of the QB draw.
We need to respect Cummings in the run game with an actual assignment. In the passing game, contain, constrict, and make a 5-10 athlete seek passing windows downfield with an eye level that's lower than the FSN sideline reporter. Weis wants Cummings performing single read tasks. So deny the initial read. Introduce doubt. Make him go through progressions. He'll self-pressure and self-inflict turnovers and sacks. He's a game little player, but he's not experienced or surrounded with sufficient WR talent.
And, pet peeve: when it's 3rd and 6 and the other team goes empty set with a running QB, you know it's a QB draw. Can we please have some recognition on this just one time?
The Kansas running game
Individual KU runners have exceeded 100 yards in 5 of 7 of their games. They run the ball very respectably and James Sims (100+ against OU, his third straight game at 100+) is a solid FBS back (6-1, 200, 1915 career rushing yards) who will run through contact. Think of a middle class man's Joseph Randle. Taylor Cox and Tony Pierson have also been significant contributors and Weis doesn't mind rolling with the hot hand. Pierson and Sims also get heavy use in the passing game.
Weis is building KU to run - witness the integration of 360 pound OT Asiam Sterling into the starting line-up. And I'll guess Weis has watched our defensive
snuff film game film. He knows the deal on our defense. Reggie Wilson and Cedric Reed need to hold up against big boy and then make his slow feet pay on 3rd down. On the other side, LT Tanner Hawkinson is picking up his 43rd straight start.
Can we stop the Jayhawk running game? There's very little evidence that we can consistently. But one key difference from previous opponents is that when we do manage to inflict a negative play on them, KU is far less likely to make an explosive play in the passing game to get a new set of downs. 3rd and 11 is a death sentence for them. This is a key point. And that leads to...
The Lack of Kansas Big Play Offense
The KU QBs have combined for 222-110-1314 yards, with 4 TDs and 9 INTs, and a sub 50% completion percentage on the year. The passing game has also yielded 19 sacks. This is an abomination. Every time Kansas doesn't run the ball against us (or run a shovel pass, hitch, or a simple one read roll out), they actively erode their chances to create offense.
Kansas can run methodical offense and even control the ball for periods of time. They've held up until the 3rd quarter in several of their losses. But they're only averaging 17.3 points per game and around 360 yards per game for a reason - they can't make plays downfield. None. Think of the 2010 Texas offense for a maddening comparable. The Jayhawks are garnering only a pathetic 4.8 yards per play.
Is it bad QBing? Bad skill talent at WR? Poor pass protection? Yes. All of that. Kansas can run the ball and not much else.
Well, they're not good, but they're very game. Harsin actually draws the relatively tougher task this week. They're surrendering 31.4 points per game an 428 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play attests to that (all numbers better than the Texas defense, by the way). This is a try-hard unit that also suffers from a bad offense, unsupportive special teams (OU scored twice last week on returns) and their own talent limitations. Dave Campo - yes, Cowboy fans, that Dave Campo - has put in a bend-but-don't-break concept that struggles against the run (allows 5.1 yards per attempt), doesn't get great pressure on the QB, but will generally make your passing game work for its yards. In the red zone, the Jayhawks tighten up considerably.
Which explains how Oklahoma State only managed to beat them 20-14 in Lawrence and Kansas held them under 400 yards of offense.
If you look at the underlying statistics, the Jayhawks are improving week by week on defense, but team inefficiencies are dragging them down like an anchor.
Red Zone Efficiency
The Jayhawks are ranked 2nd in the Big 12 in red zone defense. Is this some statistical oddity? Some fluke? No, they actually seem to hold up pretty well when things get tight and their lack of speed isn't as exploitable. Texas has been very good on offense in the red zone for the most part, so it makes plenty of sense that the competitiveness of the game will hinge on whether our trips there yield 6, 3, or nothing.
Kansas starts a guy named Huldon Tharp. Probably from a John Irving novel. Unsurprisingly, he's blonde and from rural Kansas. Does this make them a better defense? Yes, I think so. He's the white Barkevious Mingo.
Teams with some talent and size in their front 7 can give our OL fits, or at least play them to a stand still, because they're not a physically dominant unit. But when Texas gets the chance to fling around a smaller front 7, it tends not to go well for the opponent (see Ole Miss, Baylor). Kansas isn't small per se, but they don't have any players >300 pounds anchoring their interior OL and all of their LBs are around 6 feet, 225. If they can't play on the other side of the LOS and force Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray into early cuts, they're in trouble.
KU isn't great at them - mostly because of depth issues - and we'll have the chance to generate cheap scores in the kicking game. Our kick returners will be bringing out from the end zone in this one.
Given the likelihood that Kansas will try to take the air out of the ball and shorten the game and given the Longhorns likely ability to also see running success, I expect this to a quick game. At least by Big 12 standards. Vegas seems to understand that with a 60 point over/under despite bad defenses on both sides, but I'd still be tempted to take the under. I have zero interest in touching a -23 point line.
If there's a game where our defense may be pronounced healed and improved, it will be this one, but for the reasons I mentioned above, it will be largely deceptive and meaningless. The Kansas offense is poor and extremely one dimensional and, beyond the running game, isn't capable of generating big plays. I'm also assuming even a modicum of reasonable game planning from our defensive staff, and that may be a dangerous assumption.
Offensively, Texas will move the ball just fine. It's a question of how effectively and efficiently we turn it into points.
Hook 'em. Onward to 6-2.