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Monday Rewind: McNeese State

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Kansas special teams players Keeston Terry, left, Ben Heeney (31) and Huldon Tharp (34) collapse on McNeese State returner Champlain Babin during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas special teams players Keeston Terry, left, Ben Heeney (31) and Huldon Tharp (34) collapse on McNeese State returner Champlain Babin during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

By now, you’ve heard all of the notable stats: 301 yards rushing, 55 attempts, five plays of 20 yards of more, three for TDs. Combine that with all of those exciting moments from the newcomers and it’s easy to see why opening night was a rousing success for the Kansas University offense last Saturday.

But a closer look at how the Jayhawks picked up the 42-24 victory over McNeese State reveals a couple of major differences in this year’s team compared to last year’s squad.

For starters, the Jayhawks played fast offensively. There was a lot of no-huddle, quick tempo throughout the game and KU coach Turner Gill said all offseason that he wanted his team to get in and out of plays faster than they did a year ago. Part of that has to do with getting the calls to the field. Another part has to do with comprehension and execution from the players. Both seemed to be wildly successful Saturday night, as the Jayhawks pushed the pace all night.

While Gill said he was pleased with the tempo, he also said he’d like to see his team play even faster in the coming weeks. Doing so, not only gives them a chance to develop a rhythm but also helps keep the defense off balance. Some might say that controlling the clock with the running game and playing fast are contradictory, but, in this case, playing fast has nothing to do with the time coming off the clock and everything to do with getting in and out of plays quickly, getting set at the line of scrimmage and giving the defense minimal or no time to adjust. If KU can master this, it will increase their chances of winning every game.

To nobody’s surprise, the running game dominated the offense Saturday night. Heck, even KU quarterback Jordan Webb had a decent night on the ground, rushing for 39 yards and a TD on eight carries.

James Sims finished with 100+ yards on 19 carries, freshman Darrian Miller added 63 yards on 13 carries and fellow freshman Tony Pierson picked up 73 yards and a TD on five carries. So where was red-shirt freshman Brandon Bourbon in all of this? Good question. While also playing on the kickoff return team, Bourbon tallied three carries and 19 yards. Remember, though, this was Bourbon’s first game, too, and this whole running back by committee thing is going to be an ongoing feeling out process.

All we learned from Saturday’s game about the way the coaching staff will handle the approach is that they’ll feed the hot hand and continue to rely on Sims.

“James Sims is our guy,” Gill said Sunday night. “And then after that, we’ll see how it goes. In this last ballgame, we had Miller in there a little more but we have different packages for different guys, Pierson and Bourbon. With it being Brandon’s first ballgame, we were just trying to get a feel for what he could do in a game. It just kind of worked out that way that he only got (three) carries but you never know how it’s gonna work out each ballgame.”

One other interesting note was that sophomore wide receiver Christian Matthews got an extended look in the Wildcat package, one that we’ve now learned Gill and company call “Jayhawk.”

Most of Matthews’ time in the Jayhawk package was spent handing off, but he did manage one carry for six yards on a nice read that he took up the middle.

“I thought he executed pretty good there,” Gill said. “We had a couple good runs out of it and took care of the football.”

Defensively, Week 1 was not quite as feel-good. The pass defense struggled all night and had particular trouble covering McNeese State’s screen passes. The run defense was solid and was led by the stellar play of Steven Johnson (15 tackles) and Toben Opurum (11 tackles).

Overall, the defense looked much faster and a little like the KU offense in that the KU D is full of playmakers. Opurum and juco transfer Tunde Bakare were active all night. The coaches also dialed up a lot more blitzes than we saw at any point last year.

As for the 3-4 look, KU really didn’t show it that much. Opurum spent a lot of the night in the defensive end position, with his hand on the ground and the interior lineman seemed to line up more in the gaps than in the spots reserved for the traditional 3-4. The guess here is that KU held a little back knowing that the games will get increasingly more difficult from here on out.

All in all, a pretty solid effort for an opener. Gill said the mistakes his team made on defense were all correctable and had to do with individual breakdowns and adjusting to new calls from a new defensive coordinator. As the games go on, those things will smooth out a little bit.

Offensive Player of the Game: Sophomore RB James Sims. I know there were more highlights from the newcomers, but Sims set the tone early with a 30-yard burst and then carried the load the rest of the way, finishing with 104 yards and a TD on 19 carries. Tony Pierson, Darrian Miller and JaCorey Shepherd were all sensational. But Sims was super consistent.

Defensive Player of the Game: Senior LB Steven Johnson. Hard to go with anyone else here, though Opurum certainly had a nice game and Tyler Patmon did some good things, as well. Johnson finished with a game-high 15 tackles and seemed to be closing in for at least a dozen more. He looked like the savvy veteran he is out there and played with great tenacity.

Special Teams Player of the Game: Freshman long snapper Tanner Gibas. I know the Jayhawks punted just twice, but Ron Doherty averaged 46 yards per kick. Give his leg a little of the credit for that. Give the rest to the snaps from Gibas. This was a major weakness last season and it appears, in one game, that Gibas has fixed it. Great start.

Stat of the Game: After going three-and-out on their first series of the season, KU scored touchdowns on its next three possessions, went into halftime with a comfortable lead and then scored a TD on its opening drive of the second half.

Up Next: KU will play host to Northern Illinois at 6 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

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