The blueprint on how to stop Kansas’ offense is out, even if the thought of that sentence seemed preposterous just eight days ago.
KU’s rushing attack was stymied in a 29-24 loss to West Virginia Saturday afternoon at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks ran for just 142 yards in the Big 12 opener, which took place one week after Khalil Herbert and Pooka Williams Jr. combined for 308 yards in a win over Boston College.
“They made plays,” Miles said of West Virginia’s defense. “I mean I have to be honest with you, I didn't expect them to be that good, and they made plays.”
Williams ran for a total of 76 yards on 15 attempts after accumulating 220 yards on 44 carries in his previous two games. Herbert, meanwhile, was averaging 9.6 yards per attempt on 36 carries through his first three games. He finished with just 27 yards on seven rushes against WVU.
View a gallery from Saturday's game between the Jayhawks and Mountaineers at Memorial Stadium.
Just how did the Mountaineers, who were giving up over 180 yards per game on the ground entering Saturday, manage to bottle up this backfield then? Well, the answer was due to West Virginia’s alignment on the defensive side of the ball.
For an illustration of what took place, look no further than the first play of the contest. West Virginia put seven players in the box even though Kansas ran a three-receiver set. WVU had just one safety lined back deep.
The Jayhawks handed the ball off to Williams, who was immediately stuffed at the line of scrimmage by a group of defenders. And it was much of the same for the rest of the first half. KU continued to face stacked boxes, managing just 44 yards on 14 first-half carries.
“West Virginia was shooting gaps,” Williams said. “When they shoot gaps, we have to reverse field because we didn’t have enough linemen to block everybody.”
But the solution for how Kansas can find more success on the ground might be pretty simple as well. And the team showed a glimpse of that in the second half.
Quarterback Carter Stanley took more deep shots in the second half, which proved to be an effective strategy. Not only did Stanley link up with his receivers, including a 75-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Parchment in the third quarter, but it also forced the Mountaineers to respect the pass.
West Virginia played more guys back, and the running lanes opened up as a result. Nearly 70% of KU’s rushing production came in the second half, even though the Jayhawks only had two more attempts.
Both Williams (17 yards) and Herbert (12 yards) recorded their longest runs of the day in the final two quarters. The two running backs recorded 79 of their 103 yards after halftime. Even Stanley scrambled when he had to, finishing with 47 yards on eight attempts.
“After my deep shot, they pulled the safety back a little more,” Parchment said. “I feel like that helped the run game tremendously. If we have a better balance on that, the team will do a lot better.”
Kansas was also limited on the offensive end by how little it was actually on the field. KU ran a total of 56 plays, while WVU ran 85 plays. The Mountaineers had the ball for 15 more minutes than the Jayhawks.
Kansas was actually effective when it had the ball, particularly in the second half. KU averaged 7.4 yards per play. It marked the 17th time since 2000 that the Jayhawks have averaged at least 7.0 yards per play, including the second-straight game.
Yet it was just the fourth time that KU has done so in a defeat.
The bottom line is that the Jayhawks had a real shot to win their Big 12 opener for the first time since 2009. The wins won’t come any easier the rest of the way, especially if KU’s run game is contained again.
Still, the Jayhawks are optimistic that Saturday’s showing was merely a blip on the radar.
“Nobody can tackle me or Khalil one-on-one,” Williams said. “I just feel like we are the best running back duo in the nation.”