Week 11 preview: KU football enters home stretch, takes on dangerous Texas Tech
photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
The Kansas football team was unified in its approach when it beat Iowa State last week and successfully followed through on its objective to put together two good performances in a row. So what’s the message from head coach Lance Leipold heading into Saturday’s game with Texas Tech?
“How about three in a row?” Leipold said Monday, with a chuckle.
In all seriousness, he added that this 10th matchup in the 12-game regular-season schedule marks the beginning of “the fourth quarter of the season, so to speak, in the last three games. And how do we want this to finish?”
The fourth quarter of the 2021 season, with the upset win over Texas and close calls against TCU and West Virginia, sent KU down its current path toward success under Leipold. The last three games of 2022, on the other hand, were three underwhelming losses — including one against Texas Tech — in which the Jayhawks never led. This year, Leipold wants his team “to continue to play well and keep the pedal down,” or as cornerback Cobee Bryant put it, “be the best team in November.” Texas Tech will come in highly motivated, needing to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible after an injury-riddled season.
“The margin of difference between winning and losing in this conference is getting closer every week, as you can see,” Leipold said. “You can’t get into comparative scores, you can’t depend on what’s there, you don’t know and you’ve got to prepare that way.”
The Red Raiders give them a lot to prepare for. Any hard-fought fourth quarter comes with its fair share of fourth-down tries, and the fourth quarter of the season will be no different because Texas Tech is tied for the national lead in fourth-down attempts with 30 in what is becoming a hallmark of the team under second-year coach Joey McGuire. It helps that it has a dynamic running back in Tahj Brooks, who has already run for over 1,000 yards on the year and leads Power Five players in missed tackles forced (68), who can put the team in favorable downs and distances.
KU defensive coordinator Brian Borland said the fourth-down approach reminds him of when his Buffalo defenses would take on Army.
“Hopefully you’re going to play some good early-down defense,” he said. “I don’t know, if it’s fourth-and-8, if they’re going to go for it.”
Defensive tackle Caleb Taylor, who has filled in recently due to injuries on the line, said that the combination of fourth-down gambles, commitment to running the ball and a high-tempo offense can alter a lineman’s approach.
“Knowing those three things, the combination of those three things, will affect it a little bit,” Taylor said. “But at the same time, the mindset is always just going to be to get them off the field and not let them gain any yards.”
KU did that well at Iowa State after struggling in previous games; the Jayhawks’ defense must now test its success against a team with a high-energy, high-variety offense that lost its starting quarterback but has backup Behren Morton settling in after missing time himself with a shoulder injury.
The good news for Borland’s unit is that it sees eclectic formations and erratic motion in practice every day, going up against Andy Kotelnicki’s Jayhawk offense.
“As much as anybody, we should be prepared for those things,” Borland said.
No. 16 Kansas Jayhawks (7-2, 4-2 Big 12) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-5, 3-3 Big 12)
• David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, 11 a.m.
• Broadcast: FS1
• Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)
• Betting line: KU -4; over/under 62.5
• Series history: Texas Tech leads 22-2
What to watch for
1. Memories to forget: KU has struggled against many Big 12 Conference teams in its history, but the Jayhawks have won just twice in 24 tries against Tech. Mark Mangino was 0-4. The one recent win for KU pitted Les Miles against Matt Wells and came about when the Red Raiders botched an inexplicable lateral after blocking a field goal. In short, it’s not a team the Jayhawks have had much success against — though they did, after all, just beat Oklahoma and Iowa State in consecutive weeks.
2. Turnover battle: Texas Tech has one of the worst turnover margins in the country, having committed 16 turnovers while forcing just 10, and will now face a ball-hawking defense that is tied for the national lead with four defensive touchdowns. That said, the Red Raiders do seem to be headed in the right direction after getting Morton back (true freshman third-stringer Jake Strong was turnover-prone) and after Dadrion Taylor-Demerson picked off two passes in their win over TCU last week.
3. Extra time: That win over TCU came on a Thursday night at home in Lubbock, while the Jayhawks didn’t play Iowa State in Ames until Saturday night. Texas Tech has had additional time to prepare, for up-and-coming offensive coordinator Zach Kittley to throw in some wrinkles to challenge Borland’s defense and for well-traveled defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter to take a look at what Oklahoma State and others did to slow down Devin Neal, Daniel Hishaw Jr. and the dynamic KU run game.
Craig Young: The hybrid linebacker/safety position known as the Hawk in Borland’s defense requires a wide-ranging skill set, and Borland has started to find ways to incorporate both of his top two players at that position, in the nominal starter Young and Jayson Gilliom, with a fairly even number of snaps. It worked well at Iowa State, when Gilliom had five tackles and Young tallied four, including two for loss, half a sack and a pass breakup. “If a guy can play 40 plays and be really fresh instead of 70 plays and be tired for those extra 30 plays, you’re going to get more out of those 40 plays,” Borland said.
Inside the numbers
351: The school record for most career tackles by a defensive back, now held by Kenny Logan Jr., whom Kittley called one of the best safeties in the conference this week. “He’s been there, I feel like, for a really long time,” Kittley said. “Dude flies all around the place, makes a lot of tackles, I think he’s the leader of that defense.”
55: The number of consecutive starts for Texas Tech interior defensive lineman Jaylon Hutchings, a preseason all-conference selection as a sixth-year senior who forms a powerful duo with Tony Bradford Jr.
4/6: KU likes to have its quarterbacks spread the ball around on offense, but four of its six 100-yard receiving performances over the last two seasons — including last week’s, which was the first of the 2023 season — have come from Lawrence Arnold.
KU wins 34-31. This is an awkward spot for the Jayhawks, coming off a pair of challenging, emotional wins, with rival Kansas State looming on the schedule next week. They’re also playing a team trying to scratch and claw its way to a bowl game, with one of the top running backs they’ll face and a high-energy offense with tricky run-pass options. The KU defense will frequently find itself on its heels and will have to find a way to respond when it gives up chunk plays.
However, Texas Tech doesn’t have the pass rush or defensive backfield to make things sufficiently difficult for Jason Bean. With increased reps, Bean is gradually eliminating the mistakes that plagued him earlier this season. He could be in for another top-notch showing against a defense that gives up 234 passing yards while recording fewer than two sacks per game.