Saturday's win over South Dakota State showed some reasons for hope among Kansas football fans, while perhaps providing areas of concern we weren't expecting. In a way, the 31-17 final score makes the game seem closer than it was. If we had connected on a few open passes in the first half, and if a linebacker had slid over into the correct gap to prevent a 99 yard running play. This one could have been over at halftime. That being said, the score also doesn't properly indicate that this was a game that I felt in danger of losing until Cox scored our final touchdown with 5 minutes left. It was a strange game, that didn't leave me quite as hopeful as I was heading to the stadium Saturday evening.
I really do understand why Crist was ranked as the top QB in his class. His footwork is fantastic, he smoothly sells play action passes, his mechanics are perfect, he has an NFL build, and he just has that uniquely quarterback way of carrying himself. All this just added to my confusion Saturday when he continued to miss open receivers. Several Kansas drives stalled due to misfires on pass plays that should have provided easy first downs or touchdowns. Crist even fired a couple of screen passes out of their targets' reach. Call it first game jitters, call it being too amped up, call it "one of those nights." Whatever we call it, if Crist doesn't show better accuracy (which we know he's capable of) against Rice, our offense is in for a rough year. Crist's adjusted y/a was 3.86 against SDSU. For a farame of reference, Jordan Webb's was approximately the same in our 61-7 loss to Texas A&M last year.Running Backs - A
It's hard to argue with the running backs' performance Saturday. Pierson sprang for a 47 yard touchdown, while Cox had a run of 39. The two combined for 253 yards on 36 carries (compared to our passing game, which provided just 169 yards in the same number of attempts). Overall, the running game game us 5.5 yards per attempt, which will win most football games. I cannot say enough about how impressed I was with Taylor Cox. While he lacks Pierson's breakaway speed, Cox is a tough, slashing runner with quick feet and an explosive first step. I now understand his position on the depth chart ahead of Bourbon, who had an average of just 3.4 yards for his five carries. Overall, the running game was nearly flawless, outside of some struggles in short yardage situations, which I don't blame on the backfield.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - C
This was an easy grade to give. The receivers really didn't do much wrong, but didn't exactly excel, either. While Crist's accuracy prevented the passing game from being more effective, DJ Beshears did drop a potential touchdown, and I didn't really notice receivers getting open downfield. However, the receivers did repeatedly get a step on their man coming across the middle, only to watch the ball fall out of reach. Also, while it doesn't show up on the stat sheet, the receivers (particularly Beshears) did an excellent job of sealing off the edge on running plays.
As for the tight ends, they were primarily used as blockers. Weis' offense used a lot of dual tight end sets, which meant that Ragone and Mundine were frequently on the field together. They were effective in the running game, but Ragone's 2 yard touchdown catch (which Crist somehow made more difficult than it needed to be) was the tight ends' only reception of the night. At this point, it's hard to say if this will be a trend, or simply a byproduct of Weis' commitment to the run against an undersized d-line.
Offensive Line - B+
For the most part, the offensive line (particularly the left side) opened up some nice holes for Pierson and Cox to run through, and won the battle at the line of scrimmage. Crist generally had time to go through his progressions, and we gave up just one sack (surprisingly allowed by Hawkinson). The issue that prevented me from handing them an A was our performance in short yardage situations. To be fair, the blame for our lack of production in these circumstances is partially due to very conservative playcalling that allowed SDSU to load up against runs up the middle. Still, this was South Dakota State. On third-and-short and goal line situations, we simply weren't blowing them off the line, and repeatedly took multiple attempts just to pick up one or two yards.
Defensive Line - B
That's something I never got a chance to write last year. Maybe this grade got a little bump by being compared to last year's performances, but overall the line play was very solid. SDSU's quarterbacks rarely had much time to throw, and though we were officially credited with just two sacks and one hurry, the opposing signal callers rarely looked comfortable in the pocket and found themselves scrambling more than they would have liked. The defensive line actually combined for the following stat line: 18 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, a QB hurry, and a broken up pass. Last year's line couldn't have done all of that to an NAIA school. In fact, SDSU's entire first half gameplan seemed predicated on exposing defensive line flaws they found in last year's game tapes. It didn't work. If you take away an embarrassing 99 yard run play, the Jackrabbits had no luck in the first half, compiling just 109 yards and no points, and it all started up front. The second half was a little different, but the blame for that lies largely elsewhere.
Linebackers - C
The linebackers didn't make a lot of noise in this one. Starters Tharp, Heeney and Bakare combined for 12 tackles, which is a little low for linebackers, especially considering the two starting corners combined for 13. Part of this was due to so many plays getting stopped by the front line, but a few too many plays got through to the secondary for my taste. One very positive note is that Huldon Tharp looks like the 2009 Huldon Tharp. Though he was only credited for 6 tackles on the night (1 TFL), he was consistently a part of the play and reminded me of the kid who had 13 tackles against Nebraska in 2009. Something to watch is the PT battle between Bakare and Kande. Honestly, neither one did much Saturday, so it's hard to get a read on who looked better, and right now that position seems to be the weak point of the unit. Also notable is Weis' comment after the game, when asked about the 99 yard run play, that one of the linebackers (he didn't say who) was supposed to plug the inside, and instead drifted out, so the responsibility for that play falls here.
Secondary - D
This was a hard grade to give. The safety play was superb, as McDougald turned in a fantastic performance and Lubbock Smith looked solid in all facets of the game. The cornerbacks, however, are a different story. Greg Brown continues to look fantastic when he actually finds himself within reach of the ball when it gets to his receiver. He also continues to rarely find himself within reach of his receiver. While we all paid more attention to Crist's inability to hit wide open receivers, it should be noted that the SDSU quarterbacks' accuracy looked even worse. On several plays, the Jackrabbits had receivers completely alone in the middle of the field and failed to get the ball to them. In the second half, Brown, Patmon and Powell looked awful, repeatedly losing their assignments the second they changed direction. While the PI call on Brown shouldn't have stood (the pass went several yards out of bounds), it would really be nice to see a KU cornerback who could cover someone downfield without having to push them out of the way. This is one area where I feel like we just have a lack of talent, which provides little hope for defending teams like West Virginia and Oklahoma State as the year goes on.
Special Teams - C
Elements of the special teams play were fantastic, while others were atrocious, so I split this one down the middle. The two blocked punts had me excited as any other part of this game. How long has it been since we saw Kansas consistently pressure a punter? Patterson also contributed a 25 yard punt return that featured a devastating block by Josh Ford, so the punt coverage team has to earn an A. That brings us to Ron Doherty. While Doherty continues to be a reliable punter, I find myself wanting Weis to pull a Mike Leach and find an innovative way of bringing relief to the kicking game. Doherty missed a 35 yard field goal on the opening drive, and continued to land the ball at the 5 yard line on kickoffs. By contrast, our FCS opponent repeatedly kicked it out the back of the end zone. The kickoff coverage team didn't exactly bail him out either, allowing 27.3 yards per return.
Overall Team Grade - D+
When rating the team, I try to use "C" to represent an average 6-6 BCS team, and I feel like a 6-6 team beats SDSU more convincingly than this. True, if Crist just looked a little more like Crist, or if a linebacker had stuck with his assignment on a 99 yard play, this would have looked _a lot_ more convincing. That said, we didn't get things right, and this ended up being a game that wasn't decided until the middle of the fourth quarter. Again, there are parts of this game that gave me hope, but the overall product looked a little too similar to what we've seen in recent years for my taste. Here's hoping we get some wrinkles ironed out and turn in a much better performance against Rice this weekend.