Early signs indicate KU might need to embrace its ground game

photo by: Associated Press

Coastal Carolina cornerback Derick Bush (23) and safety Shi'heem Watkins (28) break up a pass intended for Kansas wide receiver Andrew Parchment (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

No one expected the Kansas offense to feature an elite passing attack when college football returned. But the first weekend of Big 12 games also magnified how far behind the rest of the league the Jayhawks might be in that category in 2020.

While Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech posted the top three passing totals among all the teams that played this past weekend, with each topping 400 yards, KU in its home loss to Coastal Carolina couldn’t settle on a starting quarterback and didn’t even crack 200 yards through the air as the three QBs who played combined for 35 passing attempts.

Texas veteran Sam Ehlinger lit up UTEP’s defense for 426 yards and five touchdowns on just 33 throws. The newest Oklahoma star QB, Spencer Rattler, only needed 17 attempts to rack up 290 yards and four TDs versus Missouri State (backup Tanner Mordecai threw for 157 more yards). And Texas Tech went pass-happy in a narrow win over Houston Baptist, as Alan Bowman threw for 430 yards, going 38-for-52.

KU’s 189 passing yards versus Coastal ranked sixth in the Big 12 out of the seven teams that played. In Iowa State’s home loss to Louisiana, the Cyclones’ Brock Purdy was 16-for-35 for 145 yards against a Ragin’ Cajuns defense that finished 18th nationally in scoring defense in 2019.

After Brent Dearmon took over as offensive coordinator last year, KU averaged 267.2 passing yards in its final six games with redshirt senior Carter Stanley leading the attack.

When the 2020 season opened, neither of KU’s two primary QBs, starter Thomas MacVittie and essential co-starter Miles Kendrick, found any sort of rhythm in the first half, leading to the unproductive outing.

MacVittie ran into some bad luck on his first two series, with a pass to Lawrence Arnold going off the receiver’s hands and into the arms of a CCU defender. Next, on the second play of KU’s next possession, a quick completion to Takulve Williams ended up as a fumble recovery for CCU.

Then KU commenced with its QB rotation. Kendrick came in for a series. Then it was back to MacVittie. Then two for Kendrick to close the first half.

After MacVittie was the first QB to play in the third quarter for KU, the plan was put to a halt due to MacVittie getting hurt. Kendrick entered with a few minutes left in the quarter and handled the rest of the snaps until KU put in its reserves for the final 1:13 and true freshman Jalon Daniels made his debut.

Kendrick finished with far more passing attempts than MacVittie, even though he only played three more snaps.

A junior, Kendrick went 15-for-24 for 156 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception while playing 39 snaps. He was sacked twice, losing 11 yards.

A senior, MacVittie finished 5-for-9 for 20 yards, with no touchdowns and the one pick, on his 36 snaps. He was sacked once for a loss of 4 yards.

It remains unclear how KU will use its two QBs moving forward, or if MacVittie will be healthy enough to play in the Jayhawks’ Big 12 opener at Baylor on Sept. 26.

But based on the limited snaps we’ve seen from the KU offense so far, the rushing attack might need to become the focal point. Star junior running back Pooka Williams only had 12 carries and 67 yards before leaving the game with an injury late in the third quarter. (Les Miles expects him back after getting “nicked”.) And sophomore rusher Velton Gardner produced 81 yards and a TD on his 11 runs.

Although KU technically ran the ball more (38 attempts versus 35 passes) in its opener, the numbers are a little skewed due to sacks and other times a QB had to take off and run on a passing play. MacVittie, Miles and Daniels combined for 12 rushing attempts and 19 yards.

KU only had non-QBs running the ball 26 times. Not counting the sacks, KU rushed for 193 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

The offensive line’s pass-blocking in the opener was historically bad, too, as Pro Football Focus’ grades showed.

It will be interesting to see if all that transpired in a let down of a debut will alter KU’s upcoming offensive game plans. Relying on two running backs in Williams and Gardner might prove more effective than depending on two QBs behind an O-line that didn’t protect its passers well versus CCU.

According to CFBstats.com, KU’s 4.68 rushing yards per attempt ranks 15th nationally out of the 42 teams who have played so far in this strange season. The Jayhawks’ 5.4 yards per pass attempt ranks 34th.

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