With six minutes left in Saturday's 31-14 victory over South Dakota and my mind starting to spin toward the upcoming deadline and all of the work that begins after the final horn sounds, I hit Twitter with a quick assessment of KU's season opener.
The exercise was simple and took about 10 seconds. After all, there was still live action to cover. So, without giving it too much thought, I handed out the following school-style letter grades for the KU football performance in six categories: Run Game (A), Pass Game (B), Run Defense (C+), Pass Defense (C), Special Teams (A+) and Overall (B-).
After looking back at the facts and stats and thinking more critically about how KU's opener unfolded, I decided I would tweak those grades a little. I also concluded that I would stick with most of them. And, as I waded through all of the “What game were you watching” comments I received on Twitter in the 12-20 hours following the game, the one thing that I kept asking myself was this: What were these people expecting?
I understand that South Dakota was an FCS team that the Jayhawks should have and could have beaten by more than 17 points. I also understand that there were plenty of elements of the opener that downright stunk. But there were also quite a few good signs, too. And to focus only on the negatives while disregarding the positives seems, at least to me, a little short-sighted and unrealistic. USD may have been an FCS team that most FBS schools would've handled with ease, but the Jayhawks were just a few months removed from a 1-11 season and, in their own right, are still very much a work in progress. Those grades (along with the ones I settled on, which you'll see a little farther down the page) were given out with a curve that took into account improvement from a season ago and reality.
With that in mind, here's a quick recap of how I saw it and what my grades meant.
Note: Please realize that what you're about to read is the reasoning behind my initial grades followed by a slightly modified version of a couple of them. I know some people just like to skim the bold print and then comment.
Run Game: A — No doubt in my mind that I'm sticking with this one. KU's offense line was physical all night and opened up solid running lanes for KU's stable of backs, which pounded away for 289 yards on 43 carries. If anything, the running game was not used enough and if they had leaned on it a little more, the spread might have been larger.
Pass Game: B — This one I'd change. I stand behind my belief that junior quarterback Jake Heaps deserved a B for his opening night performance. Heaps looked confident, in control, put his passes on the money and played smart throughout the night. What I failed to account for at the time of my Tweet was the fact that there's more to grading a passing game than just how the QB played. The wide receivers and tight ends also have to factor in and, for the most part, they left quite a bit to be desired. I thought the pass protection was OK, but it, too, can get better. I'd probably go C- in my revised grading of the passing game as a whole.
Run D: C+ – This is another one I'd lower. I thought USD quarterback Josh Vander Maten found far too much running room and the Coyotes' two-headed monster of tailbacks also ran well. Thinking back, KU coach Charlie Weis said last Tuesday that the offensive line was one of USD's strengths and, with nearly all five starters having solid experience and standing 6-5, 300 or better, I don't think the run defense was much worse than expected. I'd change this one to a C- as well.
Pass D: C – I'm not sure I'd change this a whole lot, if at all. Vander Maten completed just eight passes for 67 yards and faced a lot of pressure off both off the edge and up the middle, some of which led to a chunk of his rushing total. Beyond that, I thought KU defensive backs Victor Simmons, Dexter McDonald and Dexter Linton were among KU's best performers all night. The only bad play I can think of came on that third-and-19 early in the fourth quarter, when a USD wide receiver crept behind the secondary for a 37-yard gain and a first down. Get off the field there and the Jayhawks probably win 31-7, a margin that, no doubt, would've made several Jayhawk fans a lot happier today.
Special Teams: A+ – Not touching this one. Remember, my grades were based on a curve that took into account improvement from a season ago and reality. By that standard, every special teams unit was vastly improved and both the team and KU fans should be thrilled by what they saw.
Overall: B- – I think a straight C is probably a better overall assessment of the Jayhawks' opening-night performance and I'm sure if I had just said that on Twitter, most people would not have bothered to respond. I get that now. Next time, I'll wait until the game's over and I can better digest the total picture to pass out my grades. But, as you can, I didn't change them that much.
Like it or hate it, this is just one guy's opinion. But I do believe that first-game jitters/nerves and rust are both valid reasons for some of last Saturday's miscues. So now it's time to see what kind of improvement last Saturday's Jayhawks can make in time for this Saturday's huge match-up at Rice.