Earning stops on 3rd-and-long critical for KU's defense
When a football team enters its bye week with a 1-3 record, there’s obviously plenty of areas that coaches will try to address with extra time in practice.
For the Kansas football team, one area of concern is third down defense, which really hurt the Jayhawks in a 56-34 loss to West Virginia. Quarterback Will Grier helped the Mountaineers to 35 points in the first half, which included a 5-for-7 mark on third downs. On plays that were 3rd-and-8 or longer, Grier completed half of his passes.
The Jayhawks have a mostly inexperienced secondary, which is learning on the fly with junior college transfer cornerbacks Shak Taylor and Hasan Defense, along with sophomore safeties Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden. When meeting with the media, the group of defensive backs usually lament their communication or failing to stay true to their technique for some of the breakdowns.
But a young secondary hasn’t been helped by its pass rush. The Jayhawks only have three sacks through four games, and one of those was an intentional grounding penalty against Southeast Missouri State.
Those three sacks are tied for the second-lowest mark in the country, and it's extra disappointing for a defensive line group that entered the season with high expectations.
"It’s like we were watching the quarterback instead of actually beating the man in front of us," said junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong, who is still searching for his first sack. "It showed on film. You can actually see that happening on film.”
Armstrong, the Big 12's preseason defensive player of the year, entered the year hoping to challenge the program's single-season sack total. Against West Virginia, he believes he missed as many as four potential sacks.
"When you get the opportunity to get there, you have to cash those checks," said Armstrong, who has a team-high five quarterback hurries. "Lately, as a unit, we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been letting them get away with third down completions, fourth down completions. That’s just not us. We have to get back to making those plays."
Of course, with all of the accolades Armstrong received in the offseason, that's only added attention to him on the field. The Jayhawks have tried to line him up in different spots, including the interior, but opposing offenses always make sure they are aware of where he goes. At the end of last year, he was receiving mostly one-on-one matchups. Now he's facing double teams and even triple teams.
Armstrong remains confident that he he will solve any of the problems that have slowed him down. He compared himself to a defensive back with his eyes in the wrong place.
"I’m seeing too much," Armstrong said. "I see the slide coming my way. I see the back coming my way. I’m just trying to find other ways to get around it versus me just beating the man in front of me. That’s just my issue myself.
"It's tough. It's a good experience. It makes me a better player. It makes me a more humble player, more determined player."
In the third quarter against West Virginia, when KU's defense held the Mountaineers without any points, the Jayhawks had three stops on third down. For example, on a 3rd-and-8 play, Armstrong and fellow defensive end Isaiah Bean helped collapse the pocket on a four-man rush. Without much time to look downfield, Grier aims for his check down target, running back Kennedy McKoy.
Armstrong didn’t have enough time to reach Grier, but he put his hand up at the perfect time to tip the ball and force an incomplete pass. On the ensuing possession, the Jayhawks scored a touchdown and cut the score to 35-27.
But there were far too many breakdowns on the defensive line and secondary.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, West Virginia had 3rd-and-8 from its own 30. There was a decent pass rush created by Armstrong, but Grier had enough time in the pocket to deliver a pass to a wide-open Marcus Simms for a 25-yard gain.
Coming out of the bye week, with an opportunity to self-evaluate film more often, the defensive line is confident it can play closer to its preseason expectations against Texas Tech.
"After you see it for so many weeks in a row, you have to stop at some point," Armstrong said. "I think we found that point where it has to end."