After a crushing defeat to South Dakota State, how will the Jayhawks respond when the Memphis Tigers come to Lawrence?
After a close defeat at the hands of South Dakota State, the Jayhawks take on the Memphis Tigers. Coach Justin Fuente’s squad went 10-3 last season, culminating with an upset of BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl. KU starts out a decided underdog, and the matchup does not look promising for Coach David Beaty and company. Here’s what I’m looking for during Saturday evening’s game.
1. Will the defense improve? Perhaps the most striking thing about last week’s game was the lack of defensive fundamentals and big plays on defense. KU missed tackle after tackle against SDSU, resulting in scores on more than one occasion. If the Jayhawks are looking for an easier matchup this week, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch is a dual threat (he rushed for 13 and threw for 22 more TD’s last season) and mountain of a man, standing 6-7 and 230 pounds. Lynch is on the watch lists for the Davey O’Brien award for the nation’s best collegiate QB. Coach Justin Fuente is also a creative offensive mind. Fuente’s unit returns eight starters from last season, where the Tigers racked up 36 points per game, good for 22nd in the country. In keeping with the pattern, the Tigers blew out Missouri State last week, 63-7. For the Jayhawks to have a chance, the defense has to play much more fundamentally sound and create some big plays. Senior defensive end and captain Ben Goodman said this week the Jayhawk defense was soft. They have to be more physical and sound to slow down Lynch, running backs Jarvis Cooper and Sam Craft, and the rest of the Tiger attack. KU must improve on the zero tackles for loss on running plays from last week. If they do, they may have a chance to slow down Lynch and the Tigers.
2. Can KU keep up some momentum on offense? The Jayhawks’ best chance at victory may be in a shootout. Last week, KU racked up 576 yards of total offense on 90 plays. Beaty said after the game that tempo will be a bigger part of the offense this week. I expect the Jayhawks to keep the tempo high to get favorable matchups against a Memphis defense that only returns three starters, and only one in the defensive backfield. I look for Montel Cozart to build on last week’s success, especially the second half, where the Jayhawks scored 24 points. I also look for running back Ke’aun Kinner to add to his 157 yards rushing last week. However, the defensive front is Memphis’s strength. The running game has to be a factor, but perhaps as just a changeup. The receiving corps could also have a great game. They showed surprising depth and skill last week. Memphis may struggle in the defensive backfield, so the passing game will be absolutely critical. I expect the tight ends to be big factors as well. Kent Taylor and Ben Johnson showed flashes of greatness last week, and the matchup with the Memphis defense looks to be a favorable one. The Air Raid can feature tight ends, especially in the middle of the field. Will Beaty and Offensive Coordinator Rob Likens exploit this potential advantage? I think the answer is yes. Look for a big game from Taylor.
3. Can Beaty keep the Jayhawks motivated after a tough loss? A great coaching staff is always adept at keeping its team motivated and ready to play, especially through adversity. Last week definitely counts as adversity. How will the staff keep the team engaged, ready to play, and most importantly, focused on the task at hand? Most of the time, the biggest improvement for a football team is between the first and second games, especially with new starters and coaches. The staff and team have a game’s worth of film to evaluate, and identify things that worked and things that didn’t. I expect the Jayhawks to clean up some mental mistakes (i.e. penalties, turnovers), manage the clock more effectively, and have more established roles for players. Hopefully a receiver will step up as Cozart’s go-to guy and the defensive line steps up to give the KU offense the ball back with some regularity.
Even with great improvement, it seems likely to me that KU starts the season 0-2. Memphis is very explosive on offense, and somewhat untested on defense. The Jayhawks may have some success on offense, but will struggle to stop the Tigers. My prediction is 48-24 Memphis.