Box score breakdown: Should we still consider KU a run-first team?

KU-LA Tech new box score

Here’s a look at our “new” box score for Kansas’ 13-10 victory over LA Tech.

A note for first-time readers: this box score is meant to give some of the most relevant stats so we can take a deeper (and better) look into the numbers.

KU-LA Tech new box score

Here are a few takeaways from the box score:

Turnovers saved the Jayhawks

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas defensive lineman Keon Stowers comes away with the ball after recovering a Louisiana Tech fumble late in the fourth quarter to give the Jayhawks the ball back.

One glance at our “new” box score shows that LA Tech was the better team Saturday. The Bulldogs were better in yards per play, yards per possession, average field position, explosive plays … pretty much any category you want to look at.

That sometimes isn’t enough, though, when you can’t hold onto the football.

Though Tech had only one more turnover than KU (3-2), the Bulldogs’ miscues were much more costly. If we look at equivalent points — the number of points a team is likely to score on a drive from a certain yard line, plus the average number of points the opponent is likely to score on the ensuing possession — we see that quarterback Ryan Higgins’ fumble cost his team an estimated 6.79 points (the ball at the opponent’s 2 is worth 7.11 points; KU getting the ball at its own 20 is worth -0.32 points to KU) and Kenneth Dixon’s fumble cost his team an estimated 5.54 points.

Add it up, and those 12 points given to KU — along with some timely offense from the Jayhawks — made up for KU’s other deficiencies.

It’s time to be concerned about the run game

Remember, for this box score, any negative yards on sacks go in to “Passing Yards” category, which makes the Jayhawks’ 3.8-yard-per-carry rushing average look even worse.

KU coach Charlie Weis said after the game that his offensive line was getting beaten routinely inside by Tech’s front four, so he altered his game plan to try to attack the Bulldogs with the passing game on the edges.

Playing musical chairs with the offensive line probably didn’t help, either. At times, the right side of KU’s line (Dylan Admire, Damon Martin, Riley Spencer) featured three players that didn’t even start in the team’s previous game against Rice.

After watching this year’s struggles, it seems likely we probably didn’t give enough credit to offensive linemen Tanner Hawkinson, Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik for clearing the holes they did for the running game a season ago.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with our Div. II assistant coach from the breakdown blog last week.

After I showed him the video of KU’s offensive line getting blown up by Rice’s front four, “Coach” made the comment that there was a possibility that this year’s Jayhawks might not be suited to be a run-first team.

“You have to tailor your offense around the type of players that you have,” Coach said. “Last year was the 2012 KU Jayhawks. The 2012 KU Jayhawks are only going to happen once ever. The 2013 Jayhawks are a new team, so maybe they’re not going to be as great at running the ball, so maybe they need to do other things.”

It’s looking more and more like that with each passing week.

KU’s passing game much more efficient

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas receiver Christian Matthews hauls in a pass with Louisiana Tech defensive back Xavier Woods on his back during the fourth quarter.

For the first time this year, KU completed more than 50 percent of its passes in a game, as Jake Heaps was 28-for-46, good for a 61-percent completion rate.

One encouraging sign for KU was that many of its pass plays were simpler. Heaps said after the game that the Jayhawks took quite a few “free” yards on rollout plays, simply taking advantage of what the defense was giving to pick up some short yardage.

The Jayhawks still aren’t much of a threat to break a deep pass play, but some passing game is better than none. With KU’s run getting stuffed all game, Heaps at least showed the ability to get moderate gains through the air, while the receivers limited their drops to help the pass game’s efficiency.

KU’s run defense starting to show some holes

KU’s pass defense once again was a bright spot, coming up with nine pass breakups while holding Tech to an excellent 4.5 yards per pass attempt.

On the other hand, the Jayhawks continue to get gashed by a variety of running plays.

Against Rice, it was the read- and speed-option that burned KU. Against LA Tech, KU struggled against more traditional running plays, allowing an “explosive run” (12 or more yards) on nearly a-fourth of the Bulldogs’ rushes (seven of 29 run plays).

Almost every team in the Big 12 is pass-happy, so KU is better off having a team that is built to defend the pass rather than the run.

Still, KU is about to face better running backs, so some improvement is needed to get opposing offenses into passing downs so KU can take advantage of the impressive secondary it has assembled.

Take a bow, Trevor Pardula

I believe I’m safe in saying this is a game KU definitely would have lost a year ago without punter Trevor Pardula.

The juco transfer saved the Jayhawks on Saturday when it came to field position. Though KU didn’t get good field position often (average start of own 19), Pardula made sure that Tech didn’t have better field position, as his booming punts ensured that Tech’s average drive start was its own 28.

Field position matters, too. Tech had a nine-yard advantage on average field position, and in 2012, FBS teams won 71.6 percent of the games when their field position was eight-to-12 yards better than their opponents.

As mentioned in the first week’s blog, when two FBS teams played in 2012 and one team had an advantage of 12 yards or more per drive in field position, that team’s record was 151-10 (.938). And without Pardula netting 55.8 yards on his five punts, KU most likely loses the field-position battle by at least 12 yards.

Through three games, Pardula has probably made the biggest impact of any juco player Weis brought in for this season.

Playmakers needed

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas receiver Rod Coleman has a pass broken up by Louisiana Tech defenders Thomas McDonald (33) and Le'Vander Liggins (13) during the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013 at Memorial Stadium.

KU had more possessions and more plays than an average contest, yet the Jayhawks mustered just six “explosive” plays.

What’s also troubling is that KU had quite a bit of issues on first down — a down where a team should have most of the playbook open. KU averaged just 3.1 yards on first down, with the same number of first-down plays going for negative yards (three) as 10-plus-yard gains (three).

The Jayhawks performed some second-down miracles while doing a good job of avoiding sacks to keep their third-down distances manageable (6.1 average yards to go), but the fact is, KU’s offense is going to continue to struggle if someone doesn’t emerge to break off 30-plus-yard plays every once in a while (KU had none against LA Tech).

Weis did a better job of getting speedy Tony Pierson the ball on Saturday, but there’s still work to be done to get him more opportunities in the open field.

Through three games — and a 2-1 record — I’d argue that Pierson and receiver Rodriguez Coleman are the most significant players for this team moving forward.

Those guys provide KU with the best hope at breaking off big plays, which will be vital if the Jayhawks can’t get their offensive line — and running game — back to last year’s form.