Second-half recovery showcases newfound strength of KU defense
photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World Photo
At the core of Kansas’ 38-27 home victory over BYU was a balancing act by the KU defense, which overcame the Cougars’ heavy passing game and the Jayhawks’ own senseless penalties to open the Big 12 schedule in the win column on Saturday.
Though it reduced the Cougars’ run game to dust – nine total yards from the Cougars on the ground – KU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) seemingly struggled with BYU transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis throughout the day.
Slovis, coming out with four consecutive completions, led the way to a 17-14 lead for BYU behind 357 total passing yards and two touchdowns split between targets Darius Lassiter (8-84), Isaac Rex (7-76), Chase Roberts (5-89) and Keanu Hill (3-34).
This formula, while certainly not overwhelming the KU defense, allowed several shots at the end zone for BYU early on thanks to multiple long balls – the longest of the day being 50 yards to Roberts – by the fifth-year QB. This trend, which progressed well into the second half, became less and less effective after KU held the Cougars to a field goal heading into halftime.
The KU defense, which flashed its havoc-creating ability early on when starting corner Cobee Bryant recovered his own forced fumble for the first score of the day, continued adapting its pressure to slow down Slovis and crew in the third quarter.
Bryant said some of the defense’s extended mileage and physicality can be attributed to an improved strength and conditioning regimen during the offseason.
“When I made that hit, it was like ‘I know I’m in the weight room now,'” Bryant said. “Making that hit, that was a shocking moment… I was prepared this game.”
The change of pace became more evident when a pass from Slovis was tipped by linebacker Jayson Gilliom and landed in the hands of fifth-year safety Kenny Logan Jr., who returned the ball 30 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
BYU, now trailing KU 21-17 after the takeaway, managed a field goal, another interception (Bryant), and just 98 yards of work entering the fourth quarter down two scores.
The Cougars bent their deficit to eight points with eight minutes to go, but never inched closer to the Jayhawks. On its final defensive drive, KU held Slovis and BYU to a sack for a loss (by JB Brown) and a series of three incompletions on their final drive of the night.
Proving their endurance – and correcting their miscues – down the stretch made Saturday’s examination against their new conference foes a productive week of football, Logan said.
“I was glad we had that test,” Logan said of BYU’s offense. “We had a challenge to go see what we’re made of. We’re excited about what happened, but we’re still ready to get back to the drawing board and get back to work.”
It was, indeed, a proper challenge for KU, whose fiercest QB foe up until this point had been Illinois’ Luke Altmyer, who managed 202 passing yards just two weeks ago.
The new blood of BYU’s pass-focused offense plagued the Jayhawks’ defense in the first half, but their response, KU head coach Lance Leipold said, made all the difference – and marks a significant shift away from the problematic attitudes of the past.
“We had a few struggles with communication in the second quarter,” Leipold said. “I walked in where the defense meets and Rich Miller’s talking with the group about how ‘you’ve got to get settled in this thing’ because when we’re communicating and talking out there, we’re being successful…”
“You walk into (the locker room) in the past and you’d hear frustration… you walk in there now, it’s different.”
Heading into next week’s road test at No. 3 Texas, KU will need to shine its brightest on both sides of the field if it wants to overcome a powerhouse Longhorns offense behind Heisman candidate Quinn Ewers.