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."
Throughout all of last season, the defense was the strength of the Kansas football team, usually by a large margin over the offense.
But when the offense scored two touchdowns at the beginning of the third quarter, giving the Jayhawks some life on their comeback bid, the defense gave up scores on CMU’s next three possessions.
As I introduced last week, this will be a weekly breakdown where we’ll take a look at a few plays that might not be included in the main highlights, but they had a big impact on the outcome of the game:
Shane Morris remains calm under pressure
The tide of momentum was starting to shift at the beginning of the third quarter Saturday, when the Jayhawks scored touchdowns on their first two possessions.
After watching their lead drop and a three-and-out punt to open the second half, the Chippewas needed a response. On 2nd-and-6 from their own 31-yard line, Central Michigan senior quarterback Shane Morris dropped back and immediately felt pressure from KU defensive tackle Isi Holani, who blew past sophomore offensive lineman Logan Slaughter.
Morris moved up in the pocket, slipping a potential sack from Holani, and kept his eyes downfield. With only a split-second to release the ball ahead of a charging Daniel Wise, Morris fired a pass toward his left and connected with senior receiver Corey Willis for a first down. Willis broke a tackle after his catch, pushing the ball all the way up to the 50-yard line.
If Holani or Wise complete the sack against Morris, the Chippewas are starting at 3rd-and-very-long deep into their own territory. If the Jayhawks force a punt, they have the ball with a chance to retake the lead.
Instead, Morris helps CMU finish the drive with a touchdown and the Jayhawks never were closer than 11 points for the remainder of the night.
CMU finds success on the same play
It was immediately noticed by Fox Sports Net’s broadcast crew of Brendan Burke and David Anderson, but the Chippewas scored two of their touchdowns in the second quarter on virtually the same play.
The play design was out of a four-receiver set. The inside slot receivers on both sides zag to the outside, while the outside receivers run to the inside, creating a twist. Many NFL teams use the play to set up picks, freeing a receiver if the referees don’t call offensive pass interference.
On the first touchdown, Morris finds Mark Chapman wide open for a 14-yard score once KU cornerback Derrick Neal is caught over the top of his coverage.
The second score was at the end of the first half, with only 11 seconds remaining at the 6-yard line. Neal takes a much quicker route to the ball, but he’s about one second late in trying to break up the pass to Willis, who reached out over the goal line.
“I don't think we did a very good job handling those twist routes down by the goal line,” Beaty said afterward. “Seems like they were making those throws fairly easy. We weren't jumping through those pick plays down there. Their credit, they didn't pick us. They played the way they were supposed to and executed. We didn't get coverage on it.”
Offensive line has trouble protecting Peyton Bender
During a Week 1 victory against Southeast Missouri State, Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender operated in a mostly-clean pocket throughout the game and it was a big reason why Bender had so much success through the air.
Against Central Michigan, Bender didn’t have the same level of protection and it showed in a couple of his wild throws. Bender was sacked twice and the Chippewas recorded three quarterback hurries.
When he threw his first interception, Bender was blitzed off of the left edge and hurried a pass over the middle that was easily picked off.
Two drives later, Bender looked over the middle and his first option wasn’t open. By the time Bender looked for his next option, he was brought down by a pair of CMU defenders from both sides of the offensive line.
Beaty said Bender didn’t help the offensive line by holding the ball too long in some situations, but on plays like the clip above, he wasn’t afforded much time at all to run either.