Oklahoma was favored by more points against Kansas today than Penn State and Illinois scored in a nine-OT game. The jokes were made early on Saturday morning and no one really thought KU had a chance. Then the game started and one team dominated, but it wasn’t the Sooners.
Despite the end result—and a few wild plays (and missed calls) that changed the game—this was the type of performance that gives the fanbase hope and optimism regarding the direction of the program. The Jayhawks had a game plan, executed that game plan well, and when things didn’t go their way and OU retook the momentum, they didn’t roll over. How often have we been able to say that of late? Let alone against the No. 3-ranked team in the country.
One of the reasons for the performance, especially in the first half, was the KU rushing game and freshman running back Devin Neal. Neal ran with purpose, compiling 100 yards on 23 carries, and most importantly, he found the endzone twice. His 44-yard run late in the first quarter led to the field goal that put KU up 10-0.
The two-headed monster of Jason Bean and Devin Neal set the tone for the game. Kansas had drives of 14, 12, and 11 plays to start the game, taking large chunks off the clock with each. And while it would have been huge to get more than 10 points out of them, the time of possession and ability to keep Oklahoma’s dangerous offense on the sidelines was key.
This should be part of KU’s plan moving forward. The fast, high-powered offenses of Big 12 opponents can only do so much damage if they’re hardly ever on the field. Instead of trying to go toe-to-toe, the Jayhawks methodical approach could prove beneficial, as long as those drives end in points.
For this to happen, Neal has to be a threat. All eyes are on Bean and his ability to beat defenses with both his arm and legs. The zone reads become much more potent when defenses are just as worried about Neal getting the ball as Bean keeping it.
And Neal is growing into that threat. Saturday’s 23 carries were the most in a game this season. After receiving just one carry in the season opener and no more than 11 carries in a game after three weeks, Neal has carried the ball at least 15 times in each of the past four games, with three of those games amassing 107, 100, and 83 yards on the ground respectively.
It’s a promising sign for the future, not only for the rest of the season, but for the next few years of Leipold’s tenure at Kansas. Kansas has the opportunity to have stability and optimism returning at the quarterback and running back positions for the first time in… well, in a while. And the fact that Neal is a Lawrence native with the chance to be a prominent player in a challenging rebuild makes for a fantastic story that Kansas fans should be rooting for to succeed.