Week 3 preview: Kansas embarks on first road trip to face Nevada
After unsettling stretches in its victories over Missouri State and Illinois, the Kansas football team has a chance to put together a complete game when it goes out on the road to play Nevada.
Granted, even as KU settled for a pair of field goals following a 28-7 halftime lead, then gave up two Illini touchdowns to set the final score at 34-23, head coach Lance Leipold never felt his team loosen its grip last Friday.
“I didn’t sense a letdown,” Leipold said, adding that the Jayhawks had a Doug Emilien touchdown wiped out by a block in the back, and that their rhythm got disrupted by targeting calls and reviews: “We just lost that really good momentum and flow that we had.”
Still, KU missed out on opportunities to widen its lead further, turning the ball over with a Lawrence Arnold fumble, a Jalon Daniels interception and a Dylan McDuffie turnover on downs — some of the same sorts of obstacles the Jayhawks had hit early in their season opener against Missouri State.
KU faces a rare road trip out west into a hostile, unfamiliar, high-altitude environment, but the Jayhawks remain four-touchdown favorites over the Wolf Pack. Nevada struck early in its season opener against USC on a Sean Dollars touchdown run following a deep ball from Brendon Lewis to Spencer Curtis, but has mustered just one additional touchdown in the 116 minutes since, taking a 42-point road loss to the Trojans and then a home defeat against Idaho, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
Don’t expect KU to get caught off guard, though; the offense is ready for pressure and a variety of defensive fronts, while the defense is prepared for deep shots over the top.
“As far as excitement and focus, we’re as locked in as we can be,” wide receiver Luke Grimm said.
Kansas Jayhawks (2-0, 0-0 Big 12) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (0-2, 0-0 Mountain West)
• Mackay Stadium, Reno, Nevada, 9:30 p.m. Central Time
• Broadcast: CBS Sports Network
• Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)
• Betting line: KU -28; over/under 58
• Series history: None
What to watch for
1. Skill-position injuries: Jalon Daniels, Devin Neal and Grimm were all substantially limited to open the week of practice Sunday. Don’t be surprised if Leipold and his staff choose to rest those players, all of whom have veteran, proven backups, if KU jumps out to a lead (or potentially even from the beginning of the game). That would give the starters a chance to recuperate in advance of the start of Big 12 Conference competition, rather than risk aggravating their various minor maladies.
2. Altitude: Mackay Stadium is at an elevation of 4,610 feet, which makes it one of the highest facilities in all of Division I. The thin air can take a toll on teams that aren’t sufficiently acclimated. This week’s matchup will provide an opportunity for KU to practice its preparation ahead of high-stakes high-altitude conference games against BYU, Colorado and Utah in the years to come, now that the Big 12 has expanded its footprint into more mountainous regions. As Leipold pointed out Monday, the Jayhawks already rotate players heavily at a variety of positions. They may need to do so more than ever this weekend.
3. Back to where it all began: KU safety Marvin Grant made his collegiate debut at Mackay Stadium, back when he was a mere freshman at Purdue, and saw his Boilermakers allow 20 straight second-half points in a 34-31 loss. That was the last time Nevada hosted a power-conference foe, and even with minimal continuity from that victory four seasons ago, the Wolf Pack will be hungry for another upset win against Grant, who has just earned the first two starts of his KU tenure, and his Jayhawks.
Kalon Gervin: The Wolf Pack may have lost its first two games by a combined score of 99-20, but as Leipold pointed out Monday, Nevada has had some success passing the ball down the field. The quarterbacks, Lewis and AJ Bianco, threw for a total of 311 yards and a touchdown against USC, one of the top teams in the country. KU’s secondary has done well creating turnovers but has given up a fair amount of ground in the passing game. With Cobee Bryant suspended for the first half due to targeting, Gervin, a redshirt senior corner who has earned the trust of the coaching staff by playing both inside and outside, is first on the depth chart after a quiet first two weeks. He and Mello Dotson will be charged with setting the tone early.
Inside the numbers
12: The number of consecutive losses for Nevada since it opened the 2022 season 2-0 with wins over New Mexico State and Texas State. That is double the next longest losing streak in college football.
9.3: KU running back Devin Neal ranks fourth in the nation with an average of 9.3 yards per carry. He also became the 13th Jayhawk ever to reach 2,000 career rushing yards with his strong performance against Illinois.
6: The number of points scored by Nevada in its loss to FCS foe Idaho, which is the second-lowest total for a Football Bowl Subdivision team against a lower-division opponent in the last decade. (Vanderbilt lost 23-3 to East Tennessee State in 2021.)
KU wins 52-14. By all accounts, the Jayhawks are undaunted by the prospect of walking into an unfamiliar environment and are treating the Wolf Pack just as seriously as they did Illinois, despite the disparity in pedigree between those two teams. That preparation should be borne out early and often in Reno. Through two games, Nevada is the second-worst total defense in the country (132nd of 133 teams), and there should be numerous holes for Neal, Daniel Hishaw or whoever is carrying the ball, plus open targets for Daniels. The Wolf Pack started fast against USC and could certainly do so again, but like many teams in the country, lacks the juice to keep up with the Jayhawks’ high-octane offense.