When you look at the Kansas Jayhawks defense on paper, you don’t exactly think juggernaut. The team is 1-7, yielding almost 40 points per game. They rank 103rd in total defense, giving up 446 yards per game (236 in the air and 210 on the ground) and in game highlights, Jayhawk defenders often look like they barely put up a fight against the opposing offense. The statistics and highlight reels, however, don’t paint an accurate picture of what is really going on in Lawrence.
Contrary to popular belief, the Jayhawks defense is better than people think. Coming into their game against Oklahoma, they were ranked #1 in the Big 12 in third down defense and #2 in pass defense. They are also one of the best defenses in the country when it comes to racking up tackles for a loss, averaging almost ten per game. This is a far cry from the unit that ranked dead last in the Big 12 last season. In their 24-23 loss to TCU, the Jayhawks sacked Horned Frogs quarterback, the polarizing Kenny Hill, five times and intercepted him three times. Thanks to that strong defensive effort, they had a chance to win the game, but missed a field goal at the end.
After that game, their defense received an A+ grade, which showed a truly phenomenal effort considering that three of their best players didn’t play. A big reason for the marked improvement from last season has been defensive coordinator Clint Bowen’s understanding of the strengths of his players and putting them in a position to succeed. Bowen has not married himself to one particular base set or locked players into a specific position. While Kansas may start a game in a 4-3 alignment, they will shift to a 3-4 and back again depending on what’s working as the game progresses.
Early in the season, Bowen wanted to take advantage of Dorance Armstrong’s ability to get to the quarterback, so he made him a stand up pass rusher, moving him around in an attempt to create favorable matchups. Armstrong never took to the role, so Bowen put his hand back in the dirt and made him a permanent edge rusher. The ability to be flexible has paid off. Armstrong has seven sacks on the season, which was second in the Big 12 and ninth in the nation as the Jayhawks prepared to face Oklahoma.
Defensive back Fish Smithson has benefited from the improved pass rush with four pass break ups and two interceptions coming into the game against Oklahoma. While the improvements aren’t being seen in their record, they do show up in the subtle stats. The Jayhawks are only giving up 5.6 yards per play this season, compared to seven yards last season. They are also third in the Big 12 this season, giving up 6.8 yards per pass after ranking last a season ago at 8.8.
So the big question is, if the defense is playing better, why are the Jayhawks 1-6? The answer is simple, offensive ineptitude. The Jayhawks offense had turned the ball over 25 times coming into their game against Oklahoma. They also have a penchant for moving the ball up and down the field, but settling for field goals. If David Beaty can’t find a way to change this, his defense’s improvement will be for naught.