In many ways, Friday night’s one-sided loss to Southern Miss illustrated more completely than did its first setback why Kansas University’s football team falls short of bowl-caliber quality.
The North Dakota State outcome involved so many peripheral factors — players too relaxed during the post-Mark Mangino reign needing a loss to pay closer attention to Turner Gill, for one — that set the climate for a stunning loss to a Div. I-AA opponent.
Friday night’s 31-16 bummer felt more like a simple case of the faster, stronger, deeper, more organized football team winning the game. Southern Miss of Conference USA has a good football team, but it’s not as if the Golden Eagles would rate as a popular pick to win the Big 12 North if they played in it.
KU’s problems start up front, and it looks as if they’ll be tough to reverse. Blocking problems on the punt team should be easier to remedy.
An overmatched offensive line, more than anything in football, is the domino that makes everything fall apart. It also leads to questions about play-calling. For example, some might wonder why Kansas ran the ball so often on second down when it didn’t work particularly well (16 rushes, 61 yards, 3.8 average). Maybe because it worked better than passing (2-for-6, 13 yards, one sack for a five-yard loss. That’s a net eight yards in seven plays, an average of 1.1 yards).
James Sims and Deshaun Sands both looked sharp, considering how few holes the line blew open.
Jeremiah Hatch continues to battle back problems. Even if Hatch can return to health — he’s listed as probable for Saturday’s game against New Mexico State — that doesn’t address the bigger issue.
All three games so far, the left defensive end has had no problem consistently getting to the quarterback. Right tackle Brad Thorson, who missed the start of preseason camp because of a foot injury, doesn’t closely resemble the reliable blocker of seasons past. Yet, he has remained in the starting lineup, which raises questions as to the readiness of his backup, red-shirt freshman Riley Spencer.
Look for KU to consider keeping an extra man in the backfield to fortify the protection on the right side. That gives quarterback Jordan Webb one less target from which to choose, but at this point he hasn’t yet mastered the art of scanning the field to find the open man, so the extra time will help him more than the extra receiver.
The pass-blocking failures always stand out more, but the run-blocking also needs improvement. Left tackle Tanner Hawkinson, the team’s most talented blocker, has kept defenders away from Webb, but isn’t as advanced run-blocking. He’ll get there, but it won’t happen overnight.
Scanning the roster for possible solutions to the O-line depth problem, moving defensive tackle John Williams back to offense might seem desperate, but is worth considering.
Not that the defensive line is loaded, either. Defensive end Jake Laptad, the program’s most celebrated player, hasn’t looked as quick. A shoulder injury limited him greatly during the spring, so it might just be a case of needing to catch up.
Bottom line: Quick fixes for teams losing battles up front rarely occur.