Wednesday's KU football practice was one that closely resembled what the game time temperatures are expected to be this weekend when the Jayhawks and TCU Horned Frogs kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Biting winds that dropped the temperature to around 12 degrees made Wednesday a little different than most of the other practices the Jayhawks have had this season, and, although most adjusted accordingly there, there were a few warriors among the bunch out there today.
While most players bundled up with long sleeves and tights to stay warm, a few guys went with short sleeves and shorts just like it was a normal September practice.
The ones I saw who bared all were: Kyle Pullia, Mike Smithburg, Jordan Shelley-Smith and Preston Randall. Go figure, three of the four were offensive linemen. Props to those guys. I stood out there for about 40 minutes and even bundled up in a coat and gloves, it was cold. (I was an idiot and forgot a hat or hood of any kind, so I was toughing it out a little bit).
Anyway, all of this might seem irrelevant, but it really might not be. The high temperature in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday was 45 degrees. While not exactly warm, that was about 30 degrees warmer than what the guys in Lawrence were dealing with. And with afternoon temperatures the next two days hovering around the same mark, it's definitely possible that the game day temperatures expected to be in the high teens — with a 90 percent chance for snow, by the way — could have a much bigger impact on TCU's roster, which includes 79 native Texans, than KU's, which has been practicing in weather like that all week.
We'll see. A heavy dose of snow would make it interesting for both offenses, but, if you're KU, you'll take that trade off because it could even the playing field a little bit.
Here's a quick look at what else caught my eye at Wednesday's practice:
• Joe Dineen may very well have a new position yet again. The freshman from Free State High was working with the linebackers on Wednesday, this after he moved from safety to running back during preseason camp after the Jayhawks lost Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox to season-ending injuries. It's hard to know what this means for Dineen's future, without talking to him or KU coach Clint Bowen, but there was some talk before he even signed with KU about the potential for the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Dineen to move to linebacker in the future. Good to see him getting a look there late in the season. Either way, I think his future's on defense.
• Keon Stowers, Andrew Bolton and De'Andre Mann all were practicing and appeared to be going full speed through the drills I saw. That bodes well for KU's lineup this weekend. Still waiting for more information on offensive lineman Ngalu Fusimalohi. We might not fully know his status until game time.
• Maybe it was just their way of combatting the cold, but the coaches, including Bowen, had an extra dose of intensity on Wednesday. Probably not worth reading too much into, but that's one thing that always has impressed me about this coaching staff — no matter who the opponent is or what their odds are for the upcoming game (and remember they are playing the No. 5 team in the country this weekend), the coaches prepare like they'll be right there and like they have a great shot. That kind of mentality rubs off on the players and can become the foundation of a program.
Saturday afternoon marked just the ninth victory in the career of KU linebacker Ben Heeney and the senior captain could not have cared less about it because it felt like a million bucks.
The biggest reason for that, Heeney said, was because it marked interim head coach Clint Bowen's first career victory as the KU leader and that's something these players have been battling for since Bowen took over for Charlie Weis in late September.
That was by far the biggest storyline on Saturday night, as the statistics, big-time plays, ebbs and flows of the game tiny details all took a backseat to Bowen's big win. Players, staff members, fans and family celebrated the victory with great joy and, although some probably thought the whole scene was a bit of overkill given the fact that the win came against a 2-7 team, nobody in crimson and blue was apologizing for it and you can't take away the fact that the Jayhawks played very well from the opening whistle to secure their third victory of the season.
The road gets harder from here — flat-out frightening, in fact — but several guys said last year's upset win over West Virginia that snapped a 27-game Big 12 losing skid breathed new life into the program and helped them approach the final weeks of the season with new hope and confidence. It didn't wind up mattering, but that team wasn't led by Bowen.
The Jayhawks beat a bad football team on Saturday afternoon, but they did so convincingly and were clearly the better, more confident, more talented football team. The way things have gone for Kansas football lately, bad team or not, a win is worth celebrating, particularly when that win comes as a result of the Jayhawks playing well. They did so in just about every facet of the game on Saturday and showed a little glimpse into why they had such high hopes for this season when it began two months ago.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Because everyone else was. The haters, skeptics, die-hard fans and cautiously optimistic followers of the KU football program all saw eye-to-eye for a few minutes after Saturday's 34-14 victory over Iowa State. The mistakes didn't matter, the scary moments in the third quarter were irrelevant and the nasty schedule that lies ahead was not on anyone's mind. All that mattered was the joy and smiles and celebrations on the field, in the locker room and around the stadium for a group of players, coaches and fans who absolutely deserved an outcome like the one they got on Saturday. I'm sure the differing viewpoints have sorted themselves out again by now, but at least for a while, everyone involved with KU football had a chance to be on the same winning page.
2 – The KU defense was nasty and guys not named Ben Heeney made plays all over the place. Sure, Heeney led the team with seven tackles and played his usual all-over-the-place type of game, but half a dozen other guys on the KU defense out-shined their leader in this one and that made things nearly impossible for the Cyclones. JaCorey Shepherd (5 tackles, 5 pass break-ups, 1 interception) was as good as he's ever been, Dexter McDonald held up his end of the bargain on the other side of the field, Victor Simmons (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass break-up) had the game of his life, Jake Love had a sack and a pass break-up, Courtney Arnick had five tackles, one for a loss and two pass break-ups and Michael Reynolds had another sack and forced fumble and continued his stellar streak of games. In short, this defense played the way you would expect to see from a defense that listed “being the top defense” in the Big 12 as one of its goals before the season began. Sure, it was against a struggling offense and their back-up quarterback, but they still delivered time after time after time.
3 – KU's offense featured all kinds of play-makers, but few were as impressive as junior receiver Nigel King. King finished with 101 yards on five receptions and made arguably the biggest catch of the game, a 42-yard grab on third-and-19 that set up a touchdown that pushed KU's lead from 24-14 to 31-14 and essentially served as the knockout blow. King got open all afternoon, was tough to bring down and used his incredibly strong hands to rip the ball out of the air when it came his way. The Jayhawks are losing a lot of offensive players from this year's team, but having King back next season will be huge.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Senior offensive lineman Ngalu Fusimalohi left the game with some sort of right leg injury and it's not yet known how serious the injury is. The last place the Jayhawks can afford to lose a starter is on the offensive line, but that's especially true of Fusimalohi, who has started every game since arriving in Lawrence and is one of the Jayhawks' strongest players in the trenches.
2 – KU's kickoff return game still looks sub-par. JaCorey Shepherd is a dynamic player and a great athlete and I can't imagine that the Jayhawks' issues here rest with him. It just seems that every time the Jayhawks return a kickoff they struggle mightily to get it back to the 20 yard line, and that's whether they take it from the goal line or the 6 or 7. It doesn't make sense. But it has to be some sort of breakdown in the blocking in front of Shepherd because he almost always runs into a wall of three or four coverage guys before reaching the 20.
3 – It's easy to look at what Michael Cummings has done in the past four or five games and be happy for the guy and impressed by his ability, toughness and heart. It's equally as easy to look at Cummings and exhale violently when it hits you that, if just given a chance, this guy could have been a difference maker for the past couple of KU teams. Cummings isn't the best quarterback in the league and he'll never catch your eye as someone you desperately want to have as your quarterback, but he's a gamer and he's been considerably better in the past five weeks than anything KU's put out there in a long time and you can't help but wonder how much farther along he'd be if he'd been given this kind of chance a little earlier.
One for the road
Saturday's 34-14 victory over Iowa State...
• Pushed KU into a tie for eighth place in the Big 12 standings with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders own the tiebreaker and neither eighth or ninth place is worth bragging about, but it would be a small sign of progress.
• Improved KU's lead in the series to 50-38-6, including a 28-16-3 advantage in games played in Lawrence.
• Moved Kansas to 579-595-58 all-time.
• Gave KU just its third Big 12 Conference victory in the post-Mark Mangino era (41 games).
KU will face arguably its biggest test of the season when No. 6 TCU comes to town for a 2 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium and what will be the final home game in the careers of some pretty memorable KU seniors.
When the Denver Broncos, fresh off of last week's whipping at the hands of the New England Patriots, line up for the first defensive play of this weekend's game against Oakland, 27 percent of their starting lineup will be former Jayhawks.
Although Chris Harris and Aqib Talib — both on the Pro Bowl ballot — already are fixtures in the Broncos' starting lineup, the former KU standouts will make room to share the spotlight with linebacker Steven Johnson, a third-year pro who has played primarily special teams since joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent.
The Denver Post is reporting that Johnson will start in Nate Irving's spot at middle linebacker, as Irving left last week's loss with an injury and is expected to miss some time. Johnson has been in the Broncos' plans at LB for the past couple of years but mostly in a role as a luxury to have a guy like him for depth purposes. When asked to play, Johnson has delivered, but this weekend figures to be his first true crack at proving himself as a regular in the NFL.
While making the leap from seldom-used reserve to starter on a team vying for a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl could be overwhelming, at least one Bronco believes Johnson is ready and has been ready for the moment for a while.
"Stevey Johnson is going to be able to get the job done," Harris told The Denver Post. "He's been in our defense going on three years now. He has experience in there. He's been waiting for his shot. Now he has his shot. We've been needing him on special teams since he's been hurt, but now he has a shot to play and he has a chance to show what he can do."
For more on Johnson's likely move into the starting lineup, check out Post writer Mike Klis' report from Monday.
As has been the case throughout the past few weeks, interim KU coach Clint Bowen kicked off Wednesday's practice with a visit from a former Jayhawk. And this one meant a little more to Bowen than some of the others.
Charley Bowen, the older brother of the interim KU coach, was given the opportunity to talk to the team before Wednesday's practice and it was very clear by observing the head coach's actions that he was fired up for his big brother to speak to his squad.
During his introduction, Bowen highlighted a few of his brother's accolades — 44 starts, all-Big Eight honors, etc. — and then gave an inspired welcome as Charley stepped into the huddle to address the team.
After sharing a few words, most of which had to do with life after football and maximizing the opportunity these players had today, Charley was greeted by a rousing ovation, a few hugs and an energetic start to practice.
Charley told me it was the first time since 1992 that he had been on the practice field at Memorial Stadium. The only other KU practice he's been able to attend since then was in Arizona during the days leading up to the Insight Bowl in 2008.
Asked if being back on the field made him miss his playing days, Charley smiled and said simply, “You always miss it.”
Here's a quick look at a few other things that caught my eye at Wednesday's practice as the Jayhawks continued preparations for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. showdown with Iowa State:
• Senior defensive tackle Keon Stowers did not practice, but was on the field and did all he could to be a part of the action. Unlike his teammates in pads, Stowers wore only shorts and a jersey, but that did not stop him from coaching up the guys who were out there getting the reps in his place. Whether it was during individual drills or during team action, Stowers always found time to offer a helping hand and seemed fully engaged in every aspect, just as if he would've been out there. Bowen said earlier this week that the team was hopeful that Stowers would play Saturday and it sounds as if that's still the case. The good news there? Stowers is such a veteran with so many games under his belt that he could probably miss most of practice and still get out there on Saturday provided he's physically ready.
• It's hard to say what to make of it, but senior tight end Trent Smiley ran some with the first team offense during Wednesday's practice. Known among KU's tight ends as a strong blocker, Smiley lined up in the backfield, at his regular tight end spot and on both sides of the formation during the portion of practice when he ran with the ones.
• As was reflected on this week's updated depth chart, sophomore linebacker Courtney Arnick ran with the first team defense in place of Jake Love, who has been dealing with an injury. Love practiced and should get plenty of reps and play plenty of snaps on Saturday, but Arnick is quietly putting together a pretty strong season. Arnick all of a sudden has the look of a player the Jayhawks will be fortunate to have back in the lineup in 2015. Should be interesting to see how strongly he finishes the final third of this year's schedule.
• Defensive backs coach Dave Campo was very vocal during Wednesday's practice and most of what Campo barked about had to do with the vision of his DBs. “Get your eyes right,” Campo continually yelled during one drill. During another, he simply yelled at one of his DBs, “Get your eyes off of him (the quarterback) and worry about your man.” Nothing Earth-shattering here, of course, but it's cool to see these types of little details emphasized on this level.
• Finally, in case you missed NY Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., doing his one-handed pregame routine during the Monday Night Football game last week, check out the video below. It's become sort of a viral video and on Wednesday a couple of Jayhawks were attempting to match the moves. One who came the closest, believe it or not, was Buck Michael Reynolds. Could an INT be in Reynolds' future this week???
Kansas University football officials on Sunday night released an update on the status of freshman defensive back Derrick Neal and senior defensive lineman Keon Stowers, both of whom were injured and carted off the field during Saturday's 60-14 loss at Baylor.
Both players were taken to a nearby hospital for further evaluation during Saturday's loss but nothing new was known about their status following the game.
Sunday night, the update indicated that both players had returned to Lawrence and both participated in team activities on Sunday.
Stowers, a starter on KU's D-Line, posted on his Facebook page late Saturday that he was OK and looking forward to his recovery.
Neal, a reserve defensive back who suffered what appeared to be a head injury while making a tackle on a kickoff return, was able to get to the cart under his own power before leaving the field.
KU coach Clint Bowen will be available on the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday morning and also at his regular Tuesday news conference and at those times may provide an update on Neal and Stowers' availability for this weekend's 2:30 p.m. home game against Iowa State.
There's no denying that Saturday's 60-14 loss at Baylor was the first significant blow in interim head coach Clint Bowen's campaign to become the Kansas University football program's full-time head coach at the end of the season.
But the Jayhawks' shortcomings were hardly all on Bowen. Kansas committed six bonehead penalties, ran 14 plays that ended at least a few yards behind where they started and struggled to keep up with a roster that was both overmatched and outmanned.
Oh, and the Jayhawks also played a team that had as much talent as any team in the country in Baylor. How the Bears lost to West Virginia is beyond me.
How the Jayhawks lost, however, was easy to see and came in large part because this remains a team and a roster that lacks enough talent to compete at this level and still is struggling with depth at key positions.
So talented are the Bears that they neutralized what had been easy to see for the first three weeks of the Bowen era — hard work, discipline and toughness. None of the three showed up with any regularity on Saturday and that made for a long afternoon for the visiting team.
This certainly is not intended let KU or Bowen off the hook for Saturday's performance, but was anyone really that surprised by the outcome? While the Jayhawks took hope and confidence into their match-ups with West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech — and at times competed in a way that clearly demonstrated that — this one seemed like a mismatch from the jump and it played out that way all afternoon. If anything was a surprise, it was the KU defense's ability to hold the Bears to a three-and-out on the opening possession. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, the offense followed with a three-and-out of its own — complete with a false start penalty and two of the nine Michael Cummings incompletions — and failed to capitalize on the fast start by the defense and gain some momentum and control. The Jayhawks aren't talented enough to let those opportunities pass without a fight.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Regardless of the results, you have to continue to be impressed by what Michael Cummings has done for the KU passing game. The junior quarterback completed 21 of 30 passes for 288 yards and 2 touchdowns, despite being pressured all day and getting next to no help from the KU running game. Cummings' ability to hang in the pocket until the last minute to deliver a pass and his toughness to get up time and time again after getting blasted has helped KU take some more shots down the field and given guys like Nick Harwell and Nigel King a chance to impact the game. Asked how he does it, the QB's answer was vintage Cummings. “That's my job,” he said. “And I'm trying to do the best job I can each play at a time.” Cummings became the first KU quarterback since Todd Reesing in 2009 to throw for more than 200 yards in four straight games.
2 – KU officials announced prior to Saturday's game that wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau had been promoted to co-offensive coordinator and would take over play-calling duties from offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator John Reagan. The KU offense has been anything but solid throughout the season and giving Kiesau — an accomplished and experienced coordinator himself — a chance to draw up the game plan and call the game can only help. Saturday's game was such a mismatch and over so early that it's hard to tell how successful Kiesau was and/or will be in the new role. But it's proof positive that Bowen continues to give it all he's got and is not afraid to pull the trigger on a decision he thinks might help the team, whether it works out or not.
3 – After watching Derrick Neal and Keon Stowers leave the game on carts after a couple of scary injuries, it appears both players are OK and on the path to recovery. Stowers posted a message saying as much on his Facebook page late Saturday night. Their availability for next Saturday is up in the air at this point, but the fact that both figure to be OK long-term is much more important than whether they'll be able to play against Iowa State.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – The play of KU's offensive line continues to hold this team back. Cummings rarely gets the time he needs to let plays develop, the running game is not working — how many times did Tony Pierson take a handoff on Saturday only to see three or four Bears waiting for him? — and, perhaps worse than either of those issues, KU's offensive linemen also are the most penalized players on the team. Four of KU's six penalties on Saturday were called on the O-Line. That's not a good combination, and unless it gets fixed, or at least becomes less destructive, KU won't have a chance the rest of the way.
2 – KU's streaks of futility grew by one. It's now 31 consecutive losses away from Lawrence. KU also extended its streak of losses against ranked opponents, as the Jayhawks' last victory over a ranked team came in Week 2 of the 2010 season, when they upset No. 15 Georgia Tech at home. The last time KU topped a ranked opponent away from Memorial Stadium came in 2008, when the Jayhawks knocked off No. 12 Missouri, 40-37, at Arrowhead Stadium, and KU's last true road victory over a ranked foe came via a 30-24 victory at No. 24 Kansas State in October of 2007.
3 – Three of the four games remaining on KU's schedule are against nationally-ranked teams. KU will host TCU on Nov. 15 and then finish the season at Oklahoma on Nov. 22 and at Kansas State on Nov. 29. Re-energized by Bowen or not, boosted by Eric Kiesau calling plays or not, that stretch is a nasty way to end a season and the Jayhawks' loss to Baylor on Saturday may have been a glimpse into their immediate future.
One for the road
KU's forgettable loss at Baylor....
• Gave the Jayhawks a 578-595-58 all-time record.
• Featured the most points the KU defense has given up this season and most since Texas A&M scored 61 points in a victory over Kansas in 2011.
• Delivered not only the first career rushing attempt by senior linebacker Ben Heeney but also the 17th double-digit tackle game of Heeney's career. The Hutchinson native led Kansas with 10 tackles.
• Included freshman Corey Avery twice breaking his career-best yardage total on a reception. Avery caught a pass for 36 yards early in the game and later added a 49-yard reception to top that.
KU returns home for the first of back-to-back home games that will close out the 2014 home schedule, as Iowa State and former KU head coach Mark Mangino (now an assistant at ISU) come to Memorial Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
Wednesday afternoon marked the full return to a game-week practice for the Kansas University football team, which is slated to take on Baylor, at 3 p.m. in Waco, Texas, on Saturday.
The Jayhawks had a bye week last week and, therefore, went through a little different practice schedule than normal. That's not to say practices were any easier last week. In fact, junior safety Isaiah Johnson told me just the opposite. If anything, he said, practices were more intense, simply because the Jayhawks had time to lock in more on fundamentals yet still focused on physicality.
Plenty of Jayhawks got the rest they needed to get back into the flow for this week, though, and that was evident on Wednesday.
Here's a quick look at what caught my eye....
• Tony Pierson was out there working with the first-team offense and appears to be fine. I didn't see him favor anything or go half-speed to protect anything while he was participating in drills. Pierson was knocked out of the Texas Tech game after just two plays with what turned out to be a sprain of some sort near his neck. Good to see he's out there and ready to go for this week.
• Michael Cummings also looked sharp again. Cummings took a beating at Tech and even left the game for two plays. Earlier in the day, Cummings was asked what he got most out of the bye week and he answered with one simple word. “Rest.” From the sound of it, that was as much mental rest as physical rest, but Clint Bowen did give his guys last Friday and Saturday off and Cummings said he went fishing, watched some college football and just relaxed. There's no doubt that that kind of routine was good for everyone on the roster, especially considering the crazy times that have surrounded the program since the firing of former KU coach Charlie Weis.
• Wednesday's practice started with a little bit of flare, as Bowen broke out what appeared to be some kind of championship wrestling belt and then called the team together in a circle at midfield. Evidently, this happens quite often. Three players from the offense square off with three players from the defense in a quick wrestling-style showdown and whichever side — offense or defense — wins two of the three bouts emerges with the belt and bragging rights. I couldn't get a look at exactly who competed, but it looked like the offense won this round and the whole exercise created a lot of energy and excitement to kick off practice.
• One interesting note in terms of personnel.... Freshman wide receiver Darious Crawley is now working as a running back. It's hard to say if the move is permanent or what role the coaches have planned for the 5-11, 190-pound freshman from Houston, but he appears to have some natural ability. It's most likely just a depth thing for practice purposes, though. We'll see.
• Bowen said Tuesday that junior wide receiver Rodriguez Coleman would be in the mix for playing time after a quiet start to the season and he was very much that during Wednesday's practice. Known as a burner who can stretch the field, Coleman's emergence, should it happen, could really help this offense. He was very involved in Wednesday's practice and looked good running around out there.
• Speaking of somebody who looked good out there, wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau was also very active during the portion of practice I saw. Not only was he more vocal than I remember, with regard to the entire offense, not just his group, but he also flat-out got after it physically, running with guys during routes, throwing passes over the middle and encouraging guys to dig deeper, run it out and finish plays at an almost constant rate. The guy's got great energy and, perhaps more importantly, the players really seem to respond to his style.
• One quick note regarding former Jayhawks now playing in the NFL.... Chris Harris (Denver), Aqib Talib (Denver) and Anthony Collins (Tampa Bay) are all officially on this year's Pro Bowl ballot. Log on to NFL.com to cast your vote.
By now, it's a well-known fact around KU Nation that the Denver Broncos have two former Jayhawks starting in their secondary.
When Denver added free agent Aqib Talib to its roster in the offseason, the signing reunited the former KU cornerback and star of the Jayhawks' victory over Virginia Tech in the 2008 Orange Bowl with his running mate from that game, Denver cornerback Chris Harris.
For many KU fans, having a couple of their favorite former Jayhawks on the Broncos' roster is a nightmare since so many of them are also fans of the Kansas City Chiefs. But Sunday night, during the Broncos home game with San Francisco on Sunday Night Football, Talib gave KU fans a reason to smile whether they dislike the Broncos or not.
For the first time in years (if not ever) Talib gave a shout-out to KU during his introduction that plays along the bottom on the screen on all Sunday night games.
In recent years, Talib often represented his hometown or his high school or said North Dallas after introducing himself. Not Sunday. This time, he simply said, "Aqib Talib, Kansas."
There was some speculation that Talib started leaving KU out of his intro because of his displeasure with the way KU coach Mark Mangino was treated during the end of his time with the Jayhawks. I've never heard that confirmed, but do know it's a popular opinion.
As for why it changed, I don't know the exact details but I know that Talib's snub of the Jayhawks during his intros always rubbed KU fans and several people within the football program the wrong way and I heard that someone at KU reached out to Talib and talked to him about giving KU some love. I even heard one account that Talib spoke to the team before this year's spring game and former KU coach Charlie Weis asked him to start saying KU during the intros. Who knows? But whatever it was, it obviously worked.
During Denver's only other primetime game on NBC this season, they mysteriously did not introduce the Broncos' defense, so this was the first time we were able to see Talib make the change.
As for Harris, he's always been proud to rep KU. He typically says "Chris Harris, Kansas University," but on Sunday he said, "Chris Harris, Kansas Jayhawks."
Regardless of what they say during the intros, it's still so wild to see two former Jayhawks starting for one of the best teams in pro football.
There was not too much to like about KU's 34-21 loss at Texas Tech on Saturday, but also not too much to hate. It was just one of those sort of deliberate and drawn out games in which the Jayhawks' fell behind early, fought to get back in it and then just did not have enough left in the tank — be that juice or talent — to surge past the Red Raiders.
The players and interim head coach Clint Bowen both said they saw more small signs of progress, but they're not out there solely to progress. They want to win. And they're quickly running out of chances in 2014.
With just three road games remaining in 2014 — at Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State — the Jayhawks, all of a sudden, are staring at the very real possibility of taking that road losing streak, which now stands at 30, into the 2015 season. That's not to say they can't upset one of those perennial Big 12 powerhouses, but the odds that it will happen are slim. That's what made a loss like Saturday's so tough for these guys because they know they had the talent to play with Tech and let a couple of little things beat them.
The way I see it, Texas Tech is not a very good football team and they made plenty of mistakes that, against more talented teams, would have cost them. That's probably what hurt the most for the Jayhawks late Saturday night and into Sunday, when they, no doubt, thought back about the missed opportunity and wondered why they couldn't get it done in a winnable game. The biggest issue continues to be their slow starts and it's hard to say how that can be fixed on the fly. Like most things, it's probably as much of an attitude thing as anything, and if that's the case, KU should consider itself lucky because playing with good attitude and great passion is not at all a problem for these guys.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Ben frickin' Heeney, man. I've now covered more than two dozen college football games that the senior from Hutchinson factored into prominently and I now have an undisputed best game I've ever seen him play. Until now, there were so many 14- or 15-tackle outings that blended together that it made it tough for one of them to stand out above the others. But this one was a whole different level of Heeney. He looked as fast as I've ever seen him look, played with his signature attacking style from start to finish and just made play after play after play. Twenty-one tackles. Seventeen of them of the solo variety. And an interception that was arguably the biggest play of the game for the Jayhawks. I've said it before on a couple of occasions, but I don't think it can be said enough. We're in the midst of watching one of KU's all-time greats and the chance to watch Heeney be Heeney is worth the price of admission all by itself.
2 – The Jayhawks continued to show that, at least under Bowen, they're never out of it. Even after digging a 17-0 hole early in the game, nobody panicked, the Jayhawks stayed with the game plan and eventually began to make plays that got them back into it. A lot of the credit for this goes to quarterback Michael Cummings, who, other than a couple of forced deep balls, was pretty solid for the second week in a row. He finished with 235 yards, 2 passing TDs and a rushing TD, improved his completion percentage (from 54 to 63) and used his poise, confidence and leadership skills to keep the offense plugging away series after series.
3 – Kansas had just four penalties enforced against it during Saturday's loss in Lubbock. This represents marked improvement from the past two games, when KU finished with 11 against West Virginia and 8 more against Oklahoma State. With a team like this, when the margin for error is so small that the Jayhawks cannot get away with hardly any mistakes or mental lapses, eliminating those moments when they make life harder on themselves is absolutely critical in every aspect of the game. That means catching passes that are catchable, carrying out assignments and fundamentals all the way through the end of the play and, of course, avoiding those unforced errors that turn manageable situations into nasty ones. KU was not flawless in this department across the board against Texas Tech, but they did take care of business in the penalty department.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – KU's 128 net rushing yards was nearly 150 fewer yards per game than the Red Raiders had given up to opponents on average this year. The total is not as big of a problem — though they still left a lot of yards out there by failing to convert on third downs — as the yards-per-carry average. Led by Corey Avery's 69 yards on 15 carries, Kansas averaged just 3.2 yards per rush in Saturday's loss, which again shows the number of yards they left on the field, which in turn led to missed first downs and ultimately missed points. KU has the horses to have a strong running game, but too often the blocking at the point of attack is breaking down making life miserable for Avery, De'Andre Mann and Michael Cummings.
2 – After carrying the ball for nine yards on the first two plays of the game, senior Tony Pierson missed the rest of the day with an undisclosed injury. There's been some talk that Pierson might have suffered some kind of injury to one of his hands but no official word has come from KU. Regardless of what it is or how long it keeps him out, it's pretty disheartening to see this happening to Pierson for two reasons — 1. It really puts the KU offense in a tough spot because he's a guy who can do so much and put so much pressure on defenses. 2. It's just a drag for Tony. He's been one of KU's best players during the past four years and been nothing but a model teammate and student and lead-by-example kind of guy. Good things are supposed to happen to guys like that, not injuries that keep them off the field.
3 – He recently missed a game because of injury, so that could still be a factor, but there's no question that senior cornerback Dexter McDonald is just not quite right. Unlike last season, when he made pretty much every play that was put in front of him, McDonald is having an up-and-down season so far. In his latest outing, he dropped an interception that he probably would've caught 99 times out of 100 and also was beat for a touchdown. To be fair, the ball was thrown perfectly, but McDonald still let his guy get behind him. These aren't catastrophic miscues and it's very possible that he'll bounce back, but the bar has been set so high for him because of his fantastic skills and incredible 2013 season that even the slightest off day makes it seem like something's wrong.
One for the road
KU's loss at Texas Tech...
• Dropped the Jayhawks to 578-594-58 all-time.
• Pushed Texas Tech's edge in the all-time series with Kansas to 15-1.
• Included KU's first points of the second quarter all season, a 16-yard touchdown pass from Cummings to Justin McCay with 31 seconds to play in the first half.
• Featured another failed fourth-down attempt, which made Kansas just 2-for-11 this season when electing to go for it on fourth down.
The Jayhawks (2-5 overall, 0-4 Big 12) will take their second and final bye of the 2014 season, which many players said comes at a perfect time. Not only will it give them some time to rest up and get healthy, but it also will give them a little more time to further absorb Bowen's coaching style and set the tone for the way they want to finish the season. After the bye, KU will travel to Waco, Texas, for a match-up with Baylor on Nov. 1.
I don't care how many times I go out there the rest of the season, I think I will continually be impressed by how much attention the KU coaching staff gives to fundamentals and proper technique during their normal practice routine.
That was the biggest thing I took away from Wednesday's hour or so that we were out there as the Jayhawks continued preparation for this weekend's game at Texas Tech, and, it showed up everywhere on the field.
Offensive line coach John Reagan worked closely with the tackles on one-foot bursts that helped position them deeper to take on pass-rushers and, while doing so, showed no patience for wasted time.
While working with left tackle Pat Lewandowski at the 5-yard line, Reagan barked to right tackle Larry Mazyck behind him around the 8 to be set up and ready for his reps next. Before Reagan even turned around, Mazyck was in the proper stance and ready to work. This rapid-fire, back-and-forth approach continued throughout the drill.
Down the field 60 yards, the same sort of instruction was being given by defensive backs coach Dave Campo, who routinely stopped one drill to demonstrate with his body what he was yelling with his voice.
It's funny because during Tuesday's media session, Campo slyly pointed out that, even though being a head coach at the college level is a young man's game, he still believed he had plenty of energy left in the tank. Wednesday, I saw it on full display. What a resource.
At one point, Campo was caught in the middle of the drill and nearly taken out by safety Isaiah Johnson, who, wisely, wrapped up his coach and did all he could to prevent himself from taking him to the ground. Rather than sighing or taking a moment for relief, Campo rolled his eyes, mumbled something or other under his breath and hustled back out to his spot in the drill. Great stuff.
It's not as important for the veterans who have been through this whole thing before, but seeing the coaches work like this really helps send a message to the young guys and, in my opinion, is exactly what's necessary to change the culture and future of the program.
Here's a quick look at some other things that stood out from Wednesday's practice:
• Former KU kicker Scott Webb was on hand to watch the action. Webb, as you may recall, was the KU kicker on the Orange Bowl team in 2008.
• Senior Tony Pierson spent the early portion of practice working exclusively with KU's running backs. The good thing about Pierson right now — other than all that speed — is that he's reached a point where he's advanced enough as a receiver and yet still comfortable enough as a running back to be used in either spot (or even both) week in and week out.
• Want one for the attention to detail file? During a drill with the running backs, who ran through the gauntlet to simulate tacklers reaching and grabbing to bring them down, running backs coach Reggie Mitchell recognized that Aaron Plump did not have a ball. Rather than letting it slide and moving on to the next drill, Mitchell made Plump go get a ball and take his turn again.
• I watched the O-Line for quite a while on Wednesday and the main thing I took away was this — these dudes are working hard. I can't say I heard as much grunting and groaning during all of the drills I saw in preseason camp as I did during one or two drills on Wednesday. Say what you want about the line, but don't say it doesn't matter to these guys and that they're not working to get better.
• At least for the time I was out there, senior cornerback Dexter McDonald was a full participant. KU coach Clint Bowen said earlier this week that he expected McDonald to play Saturday and I didn't see anything that would indicate otherwise.