As the turnovers piled up for the Kansas football offense in the Jayhawks’ season opener versus Coastal Carolina, veteran linebacker Kyron Johnson had a primary message for the rest of his teammates on the other side of the ball.
“Three and out. Let’s just get off the field as fast as we can.”
It proved easier said than done, though, in a 38-23 home loss this past Saturday.
The Chanticleers scored on six of their 10 possessions and the KU defense didn’t get its first three-and-out until the Jayhwawks were already down 21-0. The deficit was 28-11 by the time the KU defense forced another three-and-out late in the third quarter. The third and final quick defensive stop came in a must-have situation, late in the fourth, with KU behind 35-23.
In part because CCU (1-0) had short fields for three of its scoring drives (26, 36 and 4 yards), the Chants finished with 318 yards of total offense.
The visitors from the Sun Belt averaged 5.3 yards per play on offense, 4.4 yards per rushing attempt, went 8-for-14 on 3rd downs, 1-for-1 on 4th downs and 5-for-5 in the red zone, without committing a turnover on 60 plays.
KU head coach Les Miles immediately after the loss, though, spoke optimistically when asked to assess the defense.
“We have some really good kids and good players in that segment of our team,” Miles said.
“Karon Prunty (four tackles and a pass breakup) was a true freshman starter (at cornerback) in that game and played really lights out,” Miles gave as an example. “We’re excited about some of the things that are going on on that side of the ball.”
Junior inside linebacker Dru Prox led KU’s defense with 11 total tackles, tying his career high. Another inside linebacker, senior Denzel Feaster, made a career best seven tackles. Sophomore safety Kenny Logan Jr. also made a personal best seven tackles.
Yet KU’s defense rarely disrupted Coastal’s offensive approach. The Jayhawks only made two tackles for loss and had zero sacks.
Miles said Coastal “ran the football so much the odds were not as good” for the KU defense to make tackles in the backfield. The Chants rushed 42 times, optimizing the abilities of their redshirt freshman quarterback, Grayson McCall.
“We hit A gaps on them several times down there in near the end zone, in that area of the field, the red zone, and we would strike them and that quarterback would extend the play, pitch it and suddenly they’re on the edge and he had gotten hit in the A gap,” Miles said. “I think his abilities did some wonderful things for that football team.”
In the first half alone, McCall, the type of mobile QB that gave the KU defense problems throughout 2019, rushed for 44 yards and a TD and went 7-for-9 on his pass attempts, with three TDs.
What made McCall so effective early?
Replied Johnson: “Honestly, I ain’t gonna say it was the calls we had, but at the same time … I can’t really answer that question.”
Up 28-3 at halftime, Coastal only gained 26 yards of offense in the third quarter, and then added 95 more in the fourth while cementing its second win in Lawrence in two seasons.
According to Johnson, KU began making more stops in the second half as the defense adjusted.
“They started to run me off the edge a little bit, but it was more because their favorite play was a zone read option and a lot of option plays,” Johnson said. “Our defense was based off (in the second half) trying to stop their favorite plays.”
CCU running back CJ Marable (21 carries, 75 yards) wasn’t as effective in the rematch as he was in Coastal’s 2019 victory at KU. But McCall’s execution helped the rushing attack thrive much of the night.
Johnson admitted KU had a lot of issues with how it would defend McCall, especially early on.
“Like whether or not the linebacker would take the QB or the pitch,” he provided as one example. “So we fixed that. That’s only one little fix that we fixed, and there’s other things that we can get fixed, too.”
After rewatching the game on video, Miles assessed KU’s defensive debut again on Monday, saying Coastal was obviously a talented team.
“I was disappointed in the tackling,” Miles said. “I was disappointed in the fact that our guys were really in position to make plays, (but) we just have to drive through our tackles. We do that we’ll all be happier today.”
KU (0-1) is off this week thanks to the Big 12’s pandemic shortened 2020 schedule, before playing at Baylor on Sept. 26.