Preview: KU football playing for pride, bowl positioning against Cincinnati

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold watches the video board hoping for an incomplete pass call late in the fourth quarter on Saturday Nov. 18, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas coach Lance Leipold said two weeks ago that he wanted his team to finish strong in, as he put it, “the fourth quarter of the season.”

The Jayhawks had already achieved bowl eligibility and a monumental upset by beating Oklahoma, then secured a rare road win at Iowa State. To take the next step as a program, they’d need to maintain that success through three more games.

“We can continue on this path of making steady progress,” Leipold said at the time, “or it’ll be one that’ll be disappointing.”

The last two weeks have leaned toward the latter outcome. KU rallied for a late tie against Texas Tech, and at one point held a two-score lead over Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown, but lost both games to close out the modern iteration of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on a sour note.

Now the Jayhawks, with a month to go before the postseason, are faced with a strange stand-alone game to close out the season: a first-ever conference matchup at Cincinnati, with a chance to, as Leipold puts it, play for pride, while also bolstering their position in the Big 12 Conference standings ahead of the postseason. As he put it Monday, “Why would you put all this work in and not finish strong?”

Or, he said, “We can show up and put in our time and go through the motions and that’d be a pretty disappointing way to wrap up this regular season.”

Cincinnati will also be playing for pride, though from a somewhat different perspective; the Bearcats have gone 3-8 overall so far in their first season in the Big 12 Conference, which is also their first under head coach Scott Satterfield after Luke Fickell brought them to renewed national prominence. They got their first Big 12 win on the road at Houston two weeks ago but lost 42-21 to West Virginia on Saturday.

Much of the Bearcats’ talent is concentrated in their 3-4 defensive front, including one of the top nose guards in the country in Dontay Corleone (known as “The Godfather”), defensive end Jowon Briggs and linebacker Deshawn Pace, the team’s leading tackler with 76 stops. The talent has rarely translated into concrete results upfront this year, though, as Cincinnati has allowed 164.6 rushing yards per game (96th in the nation).

On the flip side, though, UC’s own run game will present another challenge to a KU defense that hasn’t been much better. Corey Kiner has carried the ball 174 times for 941 yards and five touchdowns this year, and Leipold cited quarterback Emory Jones’ ability to run the ball out on the perimeter (499 yards and four scores of his own) as another area of concern. They combine with Myles Montgomery and Ryan Montgomery to form one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.

Leipold said they are “a lot better than what their record shows.”

“It’s going to be their senior day, and you’re going to see a team that’s going to be ready to play,” Leipold said.

Cincinnati Bearcats (3-7, 1-8 Big 12) vs. Kansas Jayhawks (7-4, 4-4 Big 12)

• Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, 6:30 p.m. Central Time

Broadcast: ESPN2

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Betting line: KU -7.0; over/under 58.5

Series history: Tied 1-1

What to watch for

1. Nippert at night: Besides senior day, it’s also a prime-time game in Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, which has historically been an inhospitable environment for the Bearcats’ foes. This year is the 100th anniversary of a night game Cincinnati played at what was then known as Carson Field, which the university cites as what is “believed to be the first major college football night game in the country.” The Bearcats are 39-13 in home night games since 2006, although they suffered a rare loss to Group of Five rival Miami (Ohio) in their lone “Nippert at Night” matchup thus far this season. This is the first such game they’ll host for a Big 12 matchup.

2. Special-teams woes: Following the kicking struggles that beset the Jayhawks in the Iowa State game, Leipold had talked about using a sort of kicker-by-committee setup that might have had Seth Keller kicking shorter field goals and Owen Piepergerdes longer ones. KU hasn’t attempted any long kicks since then — but it did see Keller get an extra point blocked and returned for a defensive conversion in a tight game against Kansas State. Keller has struggled to get point-after attempts over the line on several occasions this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he changes his approach, or if Leipold gives Piepergerdes a shot, at Cincinnati.

3. Quarterback mix: Redshirt sophomore Brady Lichtenberg has played sparingly at quarterback in six games this season, with Satterfield making a concerted effort to play him this month in particular, and actually got the start against West Virginia. Satterfield said that he didn’t play in the second half against the Mountaineers because he got banged up. He could choose to give Lichtenberg extended run in the Bearcats’ final game against KU, or to try to pick on the Jayhawks’ vulnerability against mobile quarterbacks by leaning on Jones, or even throw in freshman third-stringer Brady Drogosh.

Spotlight on…

Ar’maj Reed-Adams: Right tackle Bryce Cabeldue got hurt against Kansas State, forcing Reed-Adams into action on the outside of the line and the opposite side of the field, and he acquitted himself fairly well. (Leipold noted that fellow guard Michael Ford Jr. has been similarly versatile in the past.) If Cabeldue can’t go — he didn’t practice Monday — Reed-Adams would likely have to undertake that task for a whole game, with rotational guard Kobe Baynes assuming a full-time spot. KU offensive line coach Scott Fuchs places an emphasis on versatility above all else, which is why KU hasn’t really had to play any of its nominal backup tackles much at all this season. But even so, any disruption on the otherwise steady offensive line will be noteworthy, especially with Corleone causing havoc in the interior.

Inside the numbers

114 and 116: Cincinnati’s national rankings in average yardage for kickoff returns (16.6) and punt returns (3.5).

27: The margin of victory for Cincinnati the lone other time it hosted KU at Nippert Stadium, in 1997.

11: KU running back Devin Neal has now put together 11 100-yard rushing performances in less than three seasons in Lawrence. That includes, most recently, a 138-yard, three-touchdown showing against Kansas State.


KU wins 34-23. Kiner will get his fair share of yards, as he has in practically every context this year, even with his team struggling. But the Jayhawks’ defense should continue to force turnovers against a UC offense that has struggled in that domain.

Quarterback Jason Bean will likely be back in the fold Saturday after practicing beginning Monday, which he was not able to do throughout the week ahead of the Kansas State game (which Leipold said was the reason freshman Cole Ballard got the start). Andy Kotelnicki’s offense can engage in even more of its usual shenanigans and keep the Bearcats’ potent front off balance. Assuming KU follows Leipold’s mandate and takes pride in its preparation, the Jayhawks should have their easiest conference matchup of the season — even at Nippert at Night.

photo by: AP Photo/Jeff Dean

Cincinnati running back Corey Kiner (21) scores against Central Florida defensive back Decorian Patterson (11) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Cincinnati.

photo by: AP Photo/Jeff Dean

Cincinnati defensive lineman Dontay Corleone (2) reacts during an NCAA college football game against Miami (Ohio), Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Cincinnati.

photo by: AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox

Cincinnati quarterback Emory Jones (5) passes during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Houston.


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