A horrid 20 minutes of football found Kansas down 31-7 to South Dakota State, and the collective feeling at Memorial Stadium was that this team might be even further than we thought from being competitive. Then, following a turnover, Ryan Willis came in at quarterback to replace the seemingly-injured Montell Cozart who had fumbled on the previous possession. Willis threw two passes, each falling harmlessly at the intended receiver's feet. Cozart then re-entered the game, and proceeded to look unlike any version of Cozart we'd seen before. The offense started clicking, the defense adjusted, and Kansas was the better team for the remainder of the game. Unfortunately they were unable to get the benefit of the turnovers that SDSU had used to build the lead, and they fell just short after a botched center-QB exchange when Cozart was trying to spike the ball and set up a potential game-tying field goal.
I have mixed feelings about this game. On one hand, you can't ignore the team's play through the first several drives. The offense looked generally decent, but turned the ball over twice, while the defense looked abysmal and Kansas' corners were picked on mercilessly. The only true bright spot was freshman running back Ryan Schadler's 91 yard kick return in which he was clearly the fastest player on the field. Overall, for 20 minutes, the team got knocked around by an FCS opponent, and that can't be ignored.
On the other hand, you can't ignore what happened after that. Not yet, at least. SDSU's All-American wide receiver Jake Weieneke was held to just two catches from that point on. Kansas outscored SDSU 31-10 from that point on. For the day, despite two possessions cut short by turnovers and a missed offensive possession due to the touchdown return, Kansas would still outgain the Jackrabbits 576-463, the highest number of yards gained by a Kansas team since Todd Reesing and co. shredded FIU in September of 2007. Kansas averaged 5.6 yards per carry compared to SDSU's 4.4. After starting 9-13, SDSU quarterback Zack Lujan would complete just 8 of his last 20 passes for just 99 yards.
Both positive and negative narratives are already emerging from Kansas fans, but the only thing we know for sure is that there were both encouraging and discouraging signs to be taken away from Saturday's loss. With that said, I'll break down my review of each position group's performance against the 'Jacks. As a reminder, a "C" is the basic expectation of an average, 6-6 quality FBS team. That's the baseline for the grading system, which is very much subjective.
Quarterbacks - C+
Cozart did some very nice things, and his stat line of 25-38 for 291 yards, with a TD, one pick, and 94 rushing yards is something that QBs during the Weis era would drool over. Still, the yards per attempt were actually lower than his performance against Southeast Missouri last year, and Cozart still seems to want to take off running rather than allowing his receivers to complete their routes. Against SDSU, it worked. Against Big 12 teams, it's hard to say. Cozart's accuracy certainly looked better than we're used to from him, so maybe he can make teams pay for taking a player out of coverage to spy him. Then again, maybe not. Time will tell. In the mean time, we can at least say he did what you'd want your quarterback to do against lower competition.
Running Backs - A-
By "running backs," I basically mean Ke'aun Kinner, who was KU's first, second and third option at running back Saturday, carrying the ball 27 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Again, it's harder to judge against FCS competition, but it looks like Kinner could live up to Beaty's high praise from camp. He runs hard and tough, but also showed a nice burst and some elusiveness. Reggie Mitchell calls Kinner a hybrid of James Sims and Tony Pierson. He's a half-step slower than Pierson and not quite the slasher that Sims was, but overall it's not a bad description.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - B
Tre Parmalee finally had the breakout game we've been waiting to see for 3+ years, with 82 receiving yards, a 20 yard touchdown run, and big punt return. Bobby Hartzog showed nice hands, sophomores Derrick Neal and Darious Crawley showed good ability to cut upfield after a catch, and Kent Taylor hauled in the season's first touchdown pass. No receiver had more than three catches, and they were generally asked to run short, simple routes, and I would expect both of those trends to continue this year, which will likely limit them from putting up huge individual numbers. Their "B" rating is based both on their work in the passing game and some very nice blocking around the edges on some of Kinner and Cozart's runs.
Offensive Line - B-
I don't want to get carried way with the offensive line, because South Dakota State is not known for their d-line play. Still, they did what they were asked to do, and did it well. Cozart was never sacked, and much of his scrambling was due more to him taking off into open space than it was duress. The running backs had space to run to and made the most of it. I'm not even close to ready to deem the o-line cured from its miserable performance last year, but they were able to get the job done Saturday.
Defensive Line - F
It took some stunts and blitzes to finally get any pressure on Zack Lujan Saturday, as the basic four man rush simply wasn't able to pressure the passer. The Jayhawks ended up with just three tackles for loss, and overall caused far too little havoc in the backfield. Bowen will have to get creative to pressure better offenses this year, and unfortunately, getting creative frequently means taking players out of coverage, and position to make plays against the run. Ben Goodman looked good, but no one else really stood out here at all.
Linebackers - C
Kansas rotated the linebackers pretty heavily, with Marquis Roberts, Joe Dineen, Schyler Miles, and Courtney Arnick all seeing significant playing time. For the most part, the linebackers did well, and really stepped it up when Bowen called upon them to start helping out with the pass rush. At times, they also seemed to get caught overpursuing on SDSU's longer run plays, and all but Arnick look a little slow in coverage.
Secondary - F
To be fair, it's really the corners who earned the F, because Fish Smithson, Greg Allen and Tevin Shaw had pretty solid games. Still, Brandon Stewart and Tyrone Miller were so woefully unable to cover SDSU's receivers that it would be impossible to rate this group any higher. They need to improve their coverage skills quickly, because once you start playing FBS-level spread teams, there will be too many capable receivers on the field to have the safeties focused on helping out the corners. Tyrone Miller did lead the team with 8 tackles, but unfortunately they generally came after he allowed his man to catch the ball.
Special Teams - B
Special teams was a disaster during the Weis era, but Beaty's special teams crew had a nice debut Saturday. They didn't allow any big returns, there were no missed field goals or extra points. With some help from mother nature, four kickoffs went for touchbacks (although one went out of bounds), and fortunately our punter was only used twice and didn't shank anything. That all adds up to a C performance, were it not for two huge plays: Ryan Schadler keeping Kansas in the game early with a 91 yard kick return, and Tre Parmalee's 26 yard punt return that set up the final drive. It will be interesting to see if Kansas can continue to, at the very least, make sure this is no longer a weakness.
Overall Grade - D-