Opinion: Rice key test for KU

Thursday marks the four-year anniversary of the Kansas University football program’s most recent victory away from Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. Saturday represents a chance to end the futility streak of 22 games in 11 states under three coaches.

The Jayhawks travel to Houston to face Rice at its on-campus stadium, site of Super Bowl VIII. Rice is a slight favorite to extend KU’s losing streak away from home to 23 games and will have had two weeks to prepare for the Jayhawks after losing its season opener to Texas A&M.

The extra preparation time doesn’t mean as much this early in the season, with so little to look at in the way of trends. Additionally, KU coach Charlie Weis’ unpredictable play-calling makes trends difficult to identify.

That unpredictability backfired on Weis in last season’s game vs. Rice in Memorial Stadium, a 25-24 comeback victory for the Owls. Early in the third quarter, the Kansas running game began to dominate, with seven rushes for 66 yards on a nine-play stretch with Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox splitting carries. On the third play of that stretch, Cox ran for an eight-yard touchdown to put Kansas up, 24-13.

On the fourth, fifth and sixth plays of the next possession, Cox rushed for gains of 11, four and seven yards, giving KU a first-and-10 from the Rice 28. Sticking with the running game might have led to the Jayhawks taking a 31-13 lead. We’ll never know. The next three plays: Dayne Crist incompletion, 10-yard holding penalty on Trevor Marrongelli, Crist sacked for a five-yard loss. Suddenly, it was a buzz-killing third-and-25 from the 43. KU never scored again.

Counting the sack as a passing play and not as college football tracks it (as a run), Kansas averaged five yards on 29 passing plays, two of which resulted in turnovers, 5.7 yards on the 35 rushing plays, none of which were turnovers.

Now, with a better quarterback but still unproven receivers and an even better running game with everybody back and Darrian Miller and James Sims (suspended in 2012 for Rice game) added to the mix, what can the Rice defensive game-planners expect from Weis? Will he try to make the imbalanced KU personnel fit his preference for balance, or will he move away from his favored approach to make his strategy fit the strengths of his team?

This is a tough game for Kansas, the outcome of which will define expectations for the remainder of the schedule. It’s not an easy one for Rice, either, as long as Kansas doesn’t stop itself as it did a year ago by veering away from its strength.

If Kansas can’t stage the mini-upset, add Houston to Lubbock (twice), Austin (twice), Waco (twice) and College Station as Texas stops it has lost in since winning in the west Texas town of El Paso with Todd Reesing at quarterback.