After playing three games without securing even one takeaway, perhaps the odds were in the Kansas defense’s favor on Saturday at West Virginia.
“We were due. We were close,” acting head coach Josh Eargle said after the Jayhawks finally captured both their first fumble and interception of 2020 in a 38-17 loss.
Despite another poor showing for the KU offense, the Jayhawks remained within striking distance of the Mountaineers (3-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12) late into the third quarter, thanks to the efforts of the KU defense.
Starting inside linebacker Dru Prox, who returned to the lineup from an injury suffered two weeks earlier, said he was “very impressed” with the play of his fellow defenders, as well as proud.
“I thought everybody came out with the right mindset,” Prox said, “to get better today and to give our all on the field for our brothers.”
WVU scored all 21 of its second half points after the 5:00 mark of the third quarter, as the KU defense seemed to wear down.
The Mountaineers finished with 82 offensive plays, while KU’s issues on offense resulted in six three-and-outs, 10 punts and just 54 offensive snaps.
“The mindset we’ve had so far,” Prox said of the defense, “is just keep the energy that we’ve had to help bring the offense up, if they’re in some type of rut or something or kind of down. We’ve just got to keep bringing energy, just like everybody else on the team.”
The first potentially galvanizing play from the KU defense came on the game’s opening series. Linebacker Denzel Feaster forced a fumble on WVU’s third offensive snap and cornerback Deuce Mayberry recovered the ball.
Although KU scored on its next two possessions for a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, that marked the end of the offense’s success.
Nevertheless, the Mountaineers’ lead was only 17-10 two quarters later. And KU junior defensive end Malcolm Lee ended WVU’s first possession of the second half by dissecting a screen pass and intercepting Jarret Doege.
“They were killing us with those screens in the first half,” Lee said. “I was keeping an eye out for that.”
While the 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman said he happened to be in the right place at the right time to deliver the pick, his description of how it unfolded proved preparation actually set him up for success.
Lee was rushing the quarterback when he saw the tackle and guard on that side of the play leave, so he knew it was a screen.
“I kind of started backpedalling a little bit, to see if I could read the quarterback’s eyes, see where he was going to throw it so I could make a play,” Lee recalled. “He just kind of lobbed it up to me.”
The KU defense proved more disruptive versus WVU than it had at any other point early on this season. The Jayhawks (0-4, 0-3) not only came away with a pair of takeaways but also recorded season-highs with nine tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups.
Prox provided a sack, eight total tackles, three tackles for loss and two QB hurries. The linebacker credited defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot for providing a game plan that allowed the Jayhawks to get into the backfield.
“Personally, I feel like we’ve gotten better as a defense each game,” Prox said. “I feel like this is the best game we’ve had so far. I’m sure next week’s going to be even better though.”
The KU defense remains an unfinished product, of course, as WVU averaged 6.6 yards per play (8.9 in the second half) and put up 544 total yards (313 after halftime).
“We definitely had a pretty good performance in the first half,” Lee said. “We’ve got to finish, no matter what other circumstances are going on. We need to learn how to finish.”
Prox, pointing the finger first at himself, said the Jayhawks need to improve in their pursuit of the ball, too.
As the Jayhawks approach the season’s midway point still in search of their first victory, the hope for the defense is that the takeaways and other plays that disturbed the WVU offense will give the unit confidence moving forward.
“I think we performed pretty well, especially with those takeaways,” Lee said. “I mean those were huge. Usually games come down to whoever has more (takeaways) at the end of the day.”
Lee added KU’s defensive players need to keep working, drilling, getting after the ball, ripping it out and making reads that will set them up for interceptions.
KU travels to Kansas Sate (3-1, 3-0) this coming Saturday.