Matt Tait: Strong play by KU’s front seven, led by Lonnie Phelps, sets tone for Jayhawks’ dominant Week 1 win
Newcomer Lonnie Phelps made the splashy plays — seven tackles, four for loss and three sacks — but he’ll be the first to tell you that he didn’t make them alone.
Friday night, when the Kansas football team rolled to a 1-0 start to the season via a 56-10 pasting of Tennessee Tech, it was the KU front seven that stood out the most.
“I really just paid attention to how the tackles were setting and the stance that they were in,” Phelps said of what keyed his big night. “Without my defensive line, and the amount of film we watched, I wouldn’t be able to notice that. One person just has to set the tone and we’re all clicking together.”
Before we go any further, let’s point out one important thing: This was what the Jayhawks were supposed to do.
Manhandling an overmatched opponent and executing play after play after play against an FCS foe is not cause for celebration so much as it is validation of the right work being done.
But wins are wins. At Kansas they’ve been tough to come by. And this defense — particularly the Jayhawks’ defensive line — made it oh so clear early in Friday’s victory that a win was on the way.
On back-to-back drives to open the game, the Jayhawks forced Tennessee Tech into three-and-outs. That allowed the offense to build a 14-0 lead and things only got better from there.
“That set a huge tone,” Phelps said after the win, moments after discussing how thrilled he was to “a bunch of fans like that.” “That’s just the amount of film we had watched. We saw a lot of things coming and our coaches had us in the right place at the right time.”
Malcolm Lee, Sam Burt, Caleb Sampson and Phelps started the game on the D Line for the Jayhawks. And their commitment to playing disciplined football made it easier for everyone around them.
“My favorite part was I noticed that my guys were doing their job and they gave me the ability to dominate and do my job to the best of my ability,” Phelps said.
There were others beyond the starters, of course. KU rotated tackles, with Jereme Robinson, Tommy Dunn Jr., and Caleb Taylor also playing strong up front. And that allowed linebackers Rich Miller (6 tackles), Eriq Gilyard (5), Taiwan Berryhill (3) and Lorenzo McCaskill (3) to join Phelps in the top seven in tackles on Friday night.
KU coach Lance Leipold also praised the sound football played by KU’s front seven after the victory.
“I thought Caleb Sampson and others showed themselves being physical at the point of attack, and I thought we had some good play from our linebackers.”
Not immune to the joy of seeing one of his top transfers deliver in a major way, Leipold also liked what he saw from Phelps.
“Like we had hoped, Lonnie Phelps (showed) up and we’re going to need that from him,” Leipold said.
Asked specifically what he saw from Phelps on Friday that made him so effective, Leipold smiled before answering.
“Same stuff I see in practice,” he said. “He’s quick off the ball, he’s got a relentless motor and I’m sure now that he’s put it on game film it’s going to continue to be challenging. But he loves to play, he plays hard, he plays hard and he’s a great addition to this football team.”
One of the best indicators of how good KU’s defensive line was in this one actually came on offense.
Midway through the second quarter, with Kansas facing a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line, Leipold elected to go for it, almost without thinking.
The fourth-down pass fell incomplete but the Jayhawks’ defense took it from there. KU stuffed Tennessee Tech on three straight run plays and forced a Golden Eagles punt that gave the Jayhawks the ball back at the 22-yard line. Six plays later, the Jayhawks’ offense was back in the end zone for the third time on the night.
While offenses typically focus on offensive stuff and the defenders handle the defense, there was a certain amount of synergy between the two during Friday’s game. And it was about more than just the fact that the defense kept getting the ball back for the offense.
The defense’s dominance actually fueled the Kansas offense and allowed them to play loose and free and have fun.
KU quarterback Jalon Daniels (15-of-18 for 189 and 1 touchdown passing to go with 29 yards and a touchdown rushing) and running back Devin Neal (four carries for 108 yards and two TDs) both said after the victory that they were well aware of what the Kansas defense was doing while they were on the sideline.
“They were able to make a lot of plays,” Daniels said. “They went out there and basically did everything they were doing in camp. I loved to see what they did.”
Added Neal: “We’ve been playing against those guys all fall camp. Those were our original opponents. So we knew what they had in store. Just to watch them put that on film and watch them do it in a game, it’s just really exciting. I’m proud of those guys.”
Neal then went on to explain a rather simple concept. If the defense doesn’t give up many points, and the Kansas offense can continue to rack up a bunch of touchdowns, “you should win a lot of ballgames.”
“See, that’s where we’ve transcended from last year,” he said. “That’s our expectation, and we’re going to look to play like that every weekend.”
Added Phelps: “We work extra hard and we’ve just got to keep dominating and progressing. It was a little bit of celebrating (in the locker room after the win), but mainly focusing on the goal. We see how people look at us and we’re trying to change the way people look at us.”