Jayhawks still hanging hat on ground game
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) James Sims sat at home, his day becoming worse the longer the game on TV dragged on.
Kansas was hosting Rice in the second game last season, but Sims wasn't at Memorial Stadium. Suspended for the season's first three games for a drunken-driving arrest, he watched the game alone rather than on the sideline next to teammates he couldn't help.
Sims' disappointment peaked when Kansas failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead.
"Knowing that you can't be out there with your teammates due to a mistake that you made, it's pretty hard to handle," Sims said. "I did what I had to do and I paid my dues."
Sims returned from his suspension to run for 1,013 yards in only nine games, becoming the Jayhawks' most consistent playmaker and earning second-team All-Big 12 honors.
Now, he's not the only rushing option -- or the only way Kansas can move the ball.
Sims has carried 55 times for 281 yards, but Darrian Miller, Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have also contributed in the running game. Altogether, the Jayhawks (2-1) have nearly 500 yards rushing and just 559 yards passing through their first two games.
In fact, the group of running backs was so deep that coach Charlie Weis switched two of them to wide receivers in the offseason, hoping to give the passing game a spark under new quarterback Jake Heaps. So now Pierson and Bourbon rotate at flanker, and the speedy, dynamic Pierson leads the team in receiving with 15 catches for 209 yards and a touchdown.
His biggest catch came Saturday against Louisiana Tech, a 29-yard reception to set up Matthew Wyman's game-winning 52-yard field goal.
"We're never going to have a chance to compete in the Big 12 if all we're going to do is run the ball," said Weis, whose team ended a 22-game losing streak against Football Bowl Subdivision teams with its victory over the Bulldogs, and doubled its win total from all of last year.
"When they take away your inside running game, they are taking away the heart and soul of what you do," Weis explained after the game. "It puts you on the edge in the passing game, which is a little bit uncomfortable for me."
That's part of the reason Weis moved Pierson and Bourbon to wide receiver. Another reason is that the running back rotation deepened in the offseason when Miller rejoined the team.
Miller ran for 559 yards as a freshman and seemed to be poised for big things, but Weis kicked him off the team for off-the-field issues when he arrived. Miller rejoined the program in June and has been slowly earning an increased workload.
Sims and Miller now form the bulk of the running attack, though Pierson and Bourbon still get carries. The fifth piece of the rushing attack, Taylor Cox, had six carries for 44 yards in the opener against South Dakota but is now facing a redshirt because of nagging injuries.
Even so, the Jayhawks have enough options to keep the ground game potent -- and fresh.
"Throughout the game, you put any one of us in at running back, I don't see a knock-off," Pierson said. "We're all going to be fresh during the game so at any point in time you can put any one of us in the game."
Still, Sims is the ground game's heartbeat.
He moved into fourth place on the school's career rushing chart with 78 yards Saturday. And while his yardage total was third-fewest in a single game in the past two years, the victory showed that Kansas can win without relying only on rushing the ball.
"We're going to run it as much as we need to, or as less as we need to," said running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who has worked with Sims for years. "One thing about James, I can say this is, if he runs for 100 yards and we lose, he's extremely disappointed. Whereas if he gets 94 yards against South Dakota and we win, he's excited."