Images from Saturday's football game against Rice in Houston, Texas.
Kansas coach Charlie Weis talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 23-14 loss to Rice on Sept. 14, 2013.
Houston Two weeks into the Kansas University football season, I can’t stop thinking head coach Charlie Weis fell one recruit short during a busy offseason of bringing new talent to the program. It’s becoming apparent he should have recruited an offensive coordinator to take those duties off of his own plate.
The thought first occurred to me after the spring football game, which Weis watched from up in the box. He remarked afterward that it’s easy for a veteran coach to spot what the defense is doing from upstairs.
The same thought gained steam in the first half of an unimpressive season-opening victory against South Dakota. The voices in my head calling for change grew louder in the first half of Saturday night’s 23-14 loss to Rice, played in front of 22,974 in Rice Stadium.
Down by a field goal and starting a drive at its 40 with 2:52 left in the half, Kansas had plenty of time to use multiple plays to draw within field-goal range or break one for a touchdown along the way. Instead, what happened amounted to a punt on first down, giving the ball to the team armed with the best field-goal kicker in the nation.
Quarterback Jake Heaps attempted a bomb to Justin McCay, a 50-50 ball that was intercepted and Rice was able to drive into field-goal range to take a 13-7 lead at the half. Throwing long does not appear to be Heaps’ strength and McCay is a possession receiver, not much of a deep threat. It played to nobody’s strength, except that of Rice dual-threat quarterback Taylor McHargue and kicker Chris Boswell.
The bomb smacked of desperation when the circumstances were anything but desperate. It was too ambitious a play called by a coach who was guilty of being too ambitious in taking on so many duties when trying to turn around the program in shambles that he inherited.
At the very least, it was a swing of three points. And it was far from the only bizarre decision on a night when KU’s offensive line was exposed as not ready for prime-time competition.
Another strange call: On fourth and one from its 23, Kansas didn’t just send the punt unit onto the field. Instead, Weis had Heaps attempt to draw the defense offside. It didn’t work because it was way too obvious that was what KU was trying to do. Rice doesn’t have the fastest athletes on the planet, but they do have brains fertile enough to handle the academic demands of a very fine school. Predictably, the five-yard delay-of-game penalty was an unnecessary gift.
Weis is not too proud to steal from other coaches and acknowledge when he does so, but doesn’t want to conform to what the vast majority of coaches believe to be the right way to assemble a coaching staff, which is to have an offensive coordinator working for a head coach, not one man performing both demanding tasks, all the more demanding given the magnitude of the rebuilding challenge.
During the offseason, Weis shared that he was stealing from West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and planned to use Tony Pierson the way Holgorsen used Tavon Austin, as a hybrid running back/receiver, the idea being the more ways to get the fastest player on the field, the better. Pierson had five touches Saturday, just one run. That’s not how Holgorsen used Austin. Pierson rushed for 120 yards on 19 carries a year ago.
Calling plays in college football is a very different animal from the NFL, where every team has athletes good enough to enable a coach to scheme to stop something. In college, superior athletes can expose defenses, even ones designed to stop them. For example, no NFL player could have as big a speed advantage against an NFL defense as Pierson had against Rice. Pierson caught four passes for 95 yards, including a 77-yard TD catch on which he covered the final 76 yards with his legs.
“We only had 15 plays in the first quarter,” Weis said. “When it comes to a game like that, you want to make sure that you are trying to re-establish the running game because a lot of those plays early in the game, those quick passes, were run calls where they took away the run we’re throwing a pass.”
James Sims gained 109 yards on 19 rushes.
“I felt like we needed to give James the ball more to establish the interior line of scrimmage and we hadn’t done that in the first quarter, and that’s what I was trying to do,” Weis said.
It’s never a bad idea to hand the ball to Sims, but several Pierson outside running plays could have come at the expense of passes. Jake Heaps threw 28 passes and was sacked three times. The four KU running backs — Taylor Cox sat this one out — combined for 23 carries.
Talent-wise, this is a football team that should be running the ball 65 percent of the time, regardless of whether the defense schemes to take away the run, especially since the Heaps target who does the best job of getting open is having atypical trouble holding onto the football. Tight end Jimmay Mundine dropped a key third-down pass late in the first half and a potential score late in the game. Nothing wrong with those play calls. Weis has the personal skills to get inside of Mundine’s head, figure out what has given him the yips and show him the path back to ball security, but does he have the time to do that if he’s busy scripting the offensive plays, trying to make his preference for balance work with an imbalanced roster?