Ending with a botched snap as time expired, a late rally wasn’t enough to salvage a victory from an ugly opening-day effort.
The home opener is always a hopeful time for college football programs. Everyone is undefeated, and most of the time, teams play an inferior opponent. That was the thought when the Jayhawks took on the Football Championship Division (formerly 1-AA) team South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are a good program, ranked in the top 15 in most polls. The Jayhawks had a challenge on their hands.
The talent and experience of the Jacks was on display in the first half, promptly driving down the field and kicking a field goal on their first series. Things went from bad to worse on the next series for the Jayhawks, when junior quarterback Montell Cozart threw a crucial interception deep inside Jacks territory, resulting in a touchdown. The Jayhawks showed signs of life on special teams, where walk-on Ryan Schadler returned the following kickoff 91 yards for the Jayhawks’ first score of the season. Late in the first and into the second quarter, the Jayhawks allowed 21 unanswered points to the Jacks, facing a 31-7 deficit early in the second quarter. The Jayhawk offense finally came to life halfway through the second quarter, resulting in a 19-yard touchdown run on a reverse by Tre Parmalee.
The second half was polar opposite of the first for the Jayhawks. Led by Cozart, the Jayhawks marched down the field for touchdowns on their first two possessions of the half, getting the Jayhawks within three points. Going into the pivotal fourth quarter, the Jacks held a slim 34-28 lead. Early in the fourth, the Jayhawks had a successful drive, but couldn’t close the deal in the red zone, so they settled for a field goal. The Jayhawks defense couldn’t hold the Jacks offense on the next possession, giving up a touchdown. The key play was a 23 yard completion on 4th and 5 from the KU 29 yard line. The Jayhawks’ next possession was a case study in offensive football, driving down the field using the run and pass, including a beautiful 10 yard fade to tight end Kent Taylor.
The final possessions of the game turned out to be absolutely mind-boggling for both teams. On SDSU’s first play from scrimmage, a crucial mental error by freshman defensive tackle Daniel Wise resulted in a 15 yard facemask penalty. It also meant KU had to exhaust both remaining timeouts and stiffen on defense in order to have one more chance to drive down the field and kick a game-tying field goal or score the game-winning touchdown. The Jayhawk defense had its best series of the day, forcing the Jacks into a three and out. On its final offensive possession, KU had a solid punt return by Parmalee to make the comeback possible. A 20 yard completion to Derrick Neal put the Jayhawks inside SDSU territory with just a few seconds left. Out of timeouts, Cozart needed to spike the football as quickly as possible in order to give long range kicker Matthew Wyman a chance to send the game to overtime. In one of the most bizarre plays you’ll ever see, Cozart fumbled the snap to spike the football, and had a knee down when he recovered it. KU couldn’t get lined up in time to spike the ball, and the game ended. KU falls 41-38.
I noticed several themes, good and bad, for KU in the opener. First, this offense actually looks like a college offense. The Jayhawks ran up 576 yards of total offense, including 285 on the ground and 291 through the air. Cozart had his best game as a collegiate, throwing for those 291 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 94 more and a touchdown. Ke’aun Kinner had a breakout game, rushing 27 times for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Jayhawks appear to have depth at the receiver position, as seven receivers (not including tight ends) caught passes from Cozart. Running back also appears to be a position of strength. Kinner and De’andre Mann split carries, and both showed very good ability. On defense, the line did not look up to par. There is sufficient depth and talent at the end positions to compete, but the interior line is a work in progress. It’s unclear how they will hold up in a loaded Big 12 conference. The secondary showed talent, but also inexperience. The entire unit was plagued by mental errors, including busted coverages and penalties. The lack of depth across the defense showed, as they were worn out by the 4th quarter.
The Jayhawks showed signs of life, but also signs that the program has a very long way to go under head coach David Beaty. The Jayhawks were plagued by mental errors, resulting in 75 penalty yards, including personal fouls at crucial points in the game. The offense also showed some mental inconsistencies. The tempo was slower than the coaching staff would like, and allowed the Jacks to effectively set defense to counter the Jayhawks. Good news for KU fans is that the biggest improvement of a team usually comes between the first and second games. The bad news is the next game is against Memphis, a very well-coached squad from the American Conference.