One week after they orchestrated an impressive upset of then #15 ranked Georgia Tech � and two weeks after they opened the season with a disappointing 6-3 loss to North Dakota State � the Kansas Jayhawks are proving to be maybe the most schizophrenic team in major college football.
And it’s not that Friday’s 31-16 loss to Southern Mississippi was necessarily unexpected. Despite the season-opening beating they suffered at the hands of a potent South Carolina squad to open the season, the Golden Eagles are a talented, veteran bunch who entered 2010 with a big expectations.
A Friday night game, nationally televised against a quality foe in a hostile environment? That’s a recipe for a tough win. And most Kansas fans, in their more reasonable moments, probably expected the Jayhawks to be 1-2 at this point.
But it’s the way those two losses came about that is so puzzling; or, depending on one’s allegiance, troubling.
In the loss to the Bison, the Jayhawks appeared to almost sleepwalk through most of the contest. Despite a presumed talent advantage, the Kansas offensive line was defeated in the trenches that night � and soundly. Running backs Angus Quigley and Deshaun Sands combined for just 34 yards rushing and quarterbacks Kale Pick and Jordan Webb were each sacked twice.
But things were different in Week Two. With Webb at the helm, and most prognosticators giving the Jayhawks virtually no chance at achieving victory, the team that took the field against Georgia Tech was almost unrecognizable. The offense executed effectively in all phases � with a few hiccups � while the defense looked aggressive, athletic and exceedingly well-prepared.
The biggest difference, however, was the attitude. Despite going down 7-0 early, Kansas had a swagger about it that was totally absent just a week earlier. They played like a team who knew, bedrock knew, they not only belonged on the field with a Top 15 opponent � they were better than them.
Emotion can cover all manner of mistakes in the game of football, particularly at the college level. And when the Golden Eagles ran onto the field Friday night, they were riding a wave of emotion that the Jayhawks were never quite able to match. The crowd in Hattiesburg, Miss. was rocking for four quarters, and the home team converted that frenzy into fuel.
By contrast, the Jayhawks looked lethargic from the start � and that’s what is proving perhaps most troubling to fans. Southern Miss punched Kansas in the mouth, and rather than respond in kind as they had done against Georgia Tech, they were never able to recover and find their footing.
The key moving forward has to be consistency. For the second time this season, the offensive line was beaten badly in the trenches, averaging just 3.9 yards per play. The running game was largely ineffective (just 3.1 yards per carry) and while Webb was sacked four times he was pressured far more frequently.
Some of these difficulties can be explained, at least in part. With a few exceptions, most of the Jayhawks’ potential difference-makers on both sides of the ball are exceedingly young. Webb, James Sims, Bradley McDougald, D.J. Beshears, Keeston Terry, Lubbock Smith and Keba Agostinho, for example, are all either freshmen or sophomores. The offense’s most dynamic playmaker, wide receiver Daymond Patterson, is a junior in eligibility but is still learning to play receiver again after a season and a half spent at cornerback.
A depleted roster is playing a part as well. With center Jeremiah Hatch lost to injury during the third quarter of Friday night’s tilt, a thin group got even thinner. Similar depth issues plague Kansas in the linebacking corps and along the defensive line.
But that’s the reality of college football. Injuries happen. Recruiting misses? They happen, too. Every team deals with unexpected losses and departures.
None of that can be used as an excuse. When Gill was hired, he came to Lawrence, Kan. with the goal of building long-term success. And while fans need to be patient � Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all � they also have a right to expect improvement from week to week.
They have a right to expect intensity and effort, and when veteran leaders decry the team’s lack of energy after a loss for the second time in a season still in its infancy, it should be seen as a massive red flag.
Issues with execution and talent may be able to be explained away to some degree, but issues with the team’s energy level cannot. Those concerns fall squarely on the shoulders of Gill, the coaching staff and the players themselves.
The Jayhawks return home next week to take on New Mexico State, and the Aggies represent another opportunity for Gill and Co. to get things back on track. Three weeks in to 2010 the team still doesn’t have an identity. But if the season is to be a success, by the end of Week Four they need to be well on their way to finding it.