The Day After: A close call vs. the Cowboys
Two weeks after being blanked by a struggling Texas team at home, the Kansas University football team took the 16th-ranked squad in the nation to the wire in a 27-20 loss at Memorial Stadium.
It's been quite a transformation since former KU coach Charlie Weis was let go and interim head coach Clint Bowen was plugged in to replace him. The roster remains the same, the issues that existed under Weis are still present (though improving) under Bowen, but the Jayhawks appear to be playing harder and fighting with everything they've got.
Even while falling behind 20-7 at halftime, one did not get the sense that Kansas was out of it or overmatched. Led by a defense that's getting better each week and an offense that enjoyed its best four-quarter stretch of the season, the Jayhawks got the game tied at 20 with 6:55 to play and then watched a special teams miscue cost them.
Consistent effort and progress is what Bowen has preached since taking over and, even though things weren't perfect against the Cowboys, it's hard to argue that both were not achieved during KU's latest outing.
This week's near-upset of Oklahoma State may have been all about the Kansas offense finding its groove, but it would be a crime to overlook what this KU defense is doing right now. Saturday's game marked the second week in a row in which the Kansas defense did not surrender a single point in the second half. And it's not as if they were playing chumps during the past two weeks. Both West Virginia and Oklahoma State came in averaging well over 400 yards per game and the KU defense found enough rhythm, especially in the final two quarters, to really frustrate those dynamic offenses and give the Jayhawks a chance to hang around. It would have been real easy weeks ago for this defense to throw up its hands in frustration for the offense's struggles, but instead of doing that, Ben Heeney and company kept working, put more on their shoulders and finally saw the offense help them out a little on Saturday.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Michael Cummings clearly looks like the answer at quarterback. Not only does the junior who made the sixth start of his career look more comfortable, confident and competent out there, but he also is not afraid to make plays. He got the ball to Nick Harwell seven times. He exploited mismatches for Jimmay Mundine five times and he helped get Tony Pierson the 10-15 touches per game he needs for the offense to get going. The best part about all of that? He was hardly impressed. Cummings said he loved being back out there again but added that, based off of the team's performance, it's clear that they still have a ton of work to do. It didn't sound like coach speak when he said it either. Bowen didn't anoint Cummings the starter for the rest of the season publicly, but there's no doubt that the 5-10 junior is KU's answer at the position.
2 – The pride in the room was palpable but at no point did you get the impression that the Jayhawks thought what they did on Saturday was anywhere near good enough. That's a reflection of their head coach, who clearly appreciated how hard his team played and fought and how close they came to pulling the upset, but continues to emphasize that getting close is not what's important. Bowen coaches that way, his players reflect that in the way they play and, for the first time in a while, these guys seem to really believe in themselves. Instead of just hearing them say it, you can actually sense it. Nowhere is that better summed up than in a few words Bowen uttered toward the end of Saturday's postgame press conference: "I'm not so sure our team has to take a back seat to anybody. We show up any given day and compete."
3 – KU's secondary proved just how good it is by frustrating Daxx Garman (17-of-31 for 161 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception, 1 lost fumble) and the Oklahoma State passing offense WITHOUT the services of starting cornerback Dexter McDonald, who missed all but one play of Saturday's game because of injury. Matthew Boateng filled in and fought his tail off, JaCorey Shepherd kept his sensational season rolling, nickelback Tevin Shaw played arguably the best game of his career and safeties Cassius Sendish, Isaiah Johnson and Fish Smithson were tough against the pass and strong in support of the run.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Those darn kickoff returns. That's two weeks in a row that the Jayhawks have given up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and this one cost them the game. Bowen said practicing the kickoff coverage unit was one of the toughest things to do because you can't afford to send guys flying down field at full speed repeatedly in practice without risking injury, but KU's going to have to find something that works because this group is not getting it done. Bowen said it was the second week in a row with the new personnel on that unit, so maybe it's just a matter of reps and time. Compounding matters is the fact that KU, though decent, continues to get nothing significant from its kick return unit. Average starting field position for OSU on Saturday was its own 35, which included four drives starting in KU territory. Average starting field position for KU? The KU 28, with just one drive starting in OSU territory. Until that kickoff return by Tyreek Hill, the Jayhawks had kept the Big 12's No. 2 all-purpose yards per game guy bottled up to the tune of 71 yards, less than half of his average.
2 – Trevor Pardula's shank punt near the end of the first half proved to be a killer. It's hard to pile on Pardula too much here because the guy so often has been one of the few bright spots in some bad beatings during the past couple of seasons. But when KU really needed a good one to finish off a strong first half, Pardula yanked a 20-yard kick out of bounds. That set the Cowboys up with a short field and, five plays, 30 yards and 59 seconds later, OSU picked up a touchdown that pushed the halftime lead to 20-7. The way the Kansas defense was playing, if Pardula had just boomed his average kick of 44 yards, the Cowboys may have come away empty and led by just six heading into the locker room.
3 – KU knocked down its penalty total from 11 last week at West Virginia to 8 this week against OSU, but that's still a tad too high. The reason? Because so many of KU's penalties were unforced. The Jayhawks had four false start penalties, a couple of face masks and a questionable pass interference call. When you're playing hard, these things are going to happen — particularly on defense. But Bowen and the offensive coaches have to find a way to address the false start penalties by the offensive line. This offense is not good enough to overcome flipping second- or third-and-short situations into second- or third-and-long.
One for the road
The Jayhawks' 27-20 loss to 16th-ranked Oklahoma State on Saturday...
• Dropped Kansas to 578-593-58 all-time.
• Featured the Kansas defense forcing Oklahoma State to a three-and-out on its first drive of the game, marking the third time in six games that the Jayhawks haven’t allowed a first down on their opponents’ first drive.
• Included KU's first lead in Big 12 play since a 31-19 victory over West Virginia on Nov. 16, 2013 (7-3 in the first quarter).
• Included an offensive series that featured the most plays in a single drive by Kansas this season, a 14-play 72-yard drive that spanned 4:56 and ended with a KU field goal that tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
• Featured a forced fumble by Michael Reynolds that gave the Kansas defense its sixth forced fumble in as many games.
The Jayhawks (2-4 overall, 0-3 Big 12) will hit the road for a 2:30 p.m. Saturday match-up at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are coming off of a 37-34 loss to West Virginia and own the same records as the Jayhawks. “We haven't given up, despite what a lot of people think," senior linebacker Ben Heeney said. "We're 2-4, we have six games left and we're focused on Texas Tech right now. Why can't we win next week?” All of a sudden, that seems like a pretty fair question.