Week 4 preview: KU offense will need to play cleaner game against polished BYU
photo by: AP Photo/Andy Barron
One of the most common drills media members were able to observe during Kansas football’s fall training camp included receivers and running backs enduring a ball-security gauntlet. They had to hold on to the ball while dodging sudden obstacles, tackling dummies and punch-out attempts from KU staff members, running through tunnels and bouncing off exercise balls.
That laborious work has not yet paid dividends for the Jayhawks’ skill-position players, as KU has fumbled the ball five times in its first three games — running back Daniel Hishaw Jr. twice and fellow back Devin Neal, wide receiver Lawrence Arnold and quarterback Jalon Daniels once apiece.
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki called it “very disappointing.”
The fumbling is just one detrimental element of a generally positive start to the season that took an unexpectedly sloppy turn last Saturday at Nevada, as the Jayhawks also committed seven costly penalties. Even as KU escaped with a win, Kotelnicki continues to hammer home the importance of ball security, and he said the team was doing those same drills every day ahead of this weekend’s matchup with BYU.
“We go back and emphasize it more,” he said Tuesday. “We did it again today to address it and point it out and emphasize the hell out of it.”
BYU’s defense, fresh off a confidence-boosting win over Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas (which like KU was a home favorite), will surely punish any such mistakes the Jayhawks make. The Cougars have only forced a pair of fumbles on the season, though one came from Tyler Batty, who is the Big 12 Conference’s reigning defensive player of the week after tallying nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, the forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Arkansas.
Kotelnicki called him an “elite” defensive end the likes of which KU has not faced so far.
“As a group, you see an incredible amount of relentless play (from the BYU defense),” Kotelnicki said. “You see strain, you see they know what they’re doing, they don’t have mental errors. They’re obviously well coached and they know what they’re doing and they’re a physically mature group.”
Behind Batty, new defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s group features a trio of leading tacklers at linebacker in Ben Bywater, Max Tooley and AJ Vongphachanh. Redshirt senior cornerback Eddie Heckard, who followed Hill from Weber State, created a key turnover against Arkansas — the other forced fumble.
In many ways the KU offense finds itself placing the same emphasis on physicality that it did entering its Illinois game (although the Illini defense centered more on a pair of interior linemen). The Jayhawks came out strong in that Week 2 showdown and held on for a defining victory, and they will be hoping for a similar result Saturday afternoon to open their Big 12 slate.
Kansas Jayhawks (3-0, 0-0 Big 12) vs. BYU Cougars (3-0, 0-0 Big 12)
• David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, 2:30 p.m. Central Time
• Broadcast: ESPN
• Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)
• Betting line: KU -9.5; over/under 55
• Series history: KU leads 1-0
What to watch for
1. Fan support: For the first time since last season’s TCU game, KU has sold out David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, which means the Jayhawks have now produced sellouts in four games under Lance Leipold after just one in the 11 seasons prior to his arrival. These sorts of results have far-reaching consequences beyond this season because increased levels of fan enthusiasm will play a role in determining the eventual capacity of the renovated stadium, as athletic director Travis Goff has suggested. It is worth noting, though, that the traveling BYU fans will undoubtedly boast a significant presence in Lawrence on Saturday, as they did in Fayetteville, Arkansas, last week with a reported 5,000 in attendance to support the Cougars. The stadium will be packed with fans clad in blue, but it might not all be hex code #0051BA (the official Kansas shade).
2. Weather: Those potential 47,233 attendees in total may find themselves drenched because the weather forecasts portend thunderstorms in Lawrence on Saturday, particularly in the early evening as the game reaches its conclusion. Extremely wet conditions at the Booth would hamper the KU passing offense with all its bells and whistles, but on the other hand Devin Neal (who was still No. 6 in the nation in yards per carry after last week’s game) and the rushing attack have had little trouble moving the ball on their own, especially compared to BYU. Still, the battle in the trenches could favor the Cougars, who feature players like left tackle Kingsley Suamataia — a bona fide NFL prospect — and the defensive end Batty.
3. Quarterback runs: Daniels usually provides far more of a rushing threat than he did against Nevada, when a pair of Wolf Pack sacks for minus-14 yards erased all the positive yardage he accumulated on the ground all night. (He finished with seven carries for minus-4 yards.) Asked Tuesday about the lack of usage in this domain, Daniels, who ran for 425 yards and seven touchdowns in just nine games last year, said he was just running the plays that got called, “it was nothing specific.” Look for Kotelnicki to try to reincorporate some speed and read-options this week to give his athletic quarterback a chance to beat those tough linebackers to the edge.
Austin Booker: The Minnesota transfer — technically a co-backup to Hayden Hatcher along with fellow transfer Patrick Joyner Jr. — broke out with a pair of sacks against Illinois and displayed the length and athleticism that had caught the attention of his coaches in fall camp. But after getting flagged for targeting on a two-point conversion attempt, he got suspended for the first half of the Nevada game, and when he finally came in against the Wolf Pack he committed a pair of crucial offsides penalties. Defensive coordinator Brian Borland said that Hatcher was “emergency-only” for last Saturday after barely practicing all week due to injury. Even if Hatcher is back against BYU, Booker will get plenty of time to redeem himself and prove that the Illinois game was no fluke. He’ll have a tough task in conquering Cougar tackles Suamataia and Caleb Etienne, hoping to push experienced pocket passer Kedon Slovis off his spot.
Inside the numbers
124: BYU is 124th in the country, out of 130 teams, in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry. The Cougars’ run game has shown little promise outside of true freshman LJ Martin, as highly touted transfer Aidan Robbins and veteran Deion Smith have just 29 yards each on the year.
108: The number of years since KU last went 4-0 in back-to-back seasons, a milestone it would accomplish with a victory over BYU.
92.9: Defensive tackle Tommy Dunn Jr. earned this grade from Pro Football Focus for his performance against Nevada, which is the highest single-game grade for any KU player thus far this season, albeit in limited snaps.
KU wins 27-23. The sportsbooks have treated KU rather generously ahead of this game with spreads that favor the Jayhawks by more than a touchdown, even after they underperformed on the road last week. To some extent, Hill’s revitalized BYU defense, and particularly the front seven, should challenge KU in ways it hasn’t experienced — even against Illinois, which had a highly touted interior line. However, if Daniels maintains a stronger and more consistent rhythm than he did at Nevada, despite the rain, even the confident Cougars won’t be able to stop him when it counts. The Jayhawks simply have more firepower on offense.