It’s nearly impossible to gauge what this year’s Kansas Jayhawks (2-1) are. Coach Les Miles’ program looked completely lost, specifically on offense, against Coastal Carolina merely two weeks ago. Then, last Friday, they dominated Boston College on the road and the offense looked great. Clearly, there is a great deal of variance between KU’s best and worst efforts.
The key going forward is harnessing what worked so well in Week 3 and applying it consistently. That includes an effective running game, a smart air attack and quality offensive line play. And that’s without getting to the defense’s strong start to the year.
KU’s opponent this week is a fellow bottom-feeder Big 12 team in the West Virginia Mountaineers (2-1). However, after an unimpressive win over James Madison and disaster against Missouri to open the season, WVU rebounded nicely with a win over North Carolina State last Saturday. The expectations for coach Neal Brown’s team weren’t high to open the year, but a win over Kansas would at least set West Virginia apart from the very bottom of the league (for now).
The preconceived strengths for KU we entered the season with actually manifested themselves last week. The running backs tandem of sophomore Pooka Williams Jr. and senior Khalil Herbert is as good as almost any pairing in the Big 12, especially if Herbert churns out 10 yards per carry like he did last week. The tailbacks are the focal point, but their success is predicated on the quality of work by the offensive line. That veteran group struggled early this season, but played its best game in years against Boston College. Physicality is the key. As long as senior quarterback Carter Stanley is safe with the ball, the running game can handle KU’s offensive load.
A confident, playmaking secondary headlines the Kansas defense, but that side of the ball as a whole has performed unexpectedly well against the ground game so far this year. The Jayhawks have held their opponents to 4.1 yards per carry through three games. Junior linebacker Dru Prox has been a stalwart for the front seven, drawing constant praise from Miles this season. Physicality is the key for KU’s defense just like it is for the offense. If the Jayhawks are able to make stops early in drives against the run, it gives the secondary more chances to make plays when the offense is behind schedule.
West Virginia, however, isn’t going to run the ball that much against Kansas. The Mountaineers have just 84 rushing attempts through three weeks, averaging just 79 yards per game on the ground (and merely 2.8 yards per rush). Junior quarterback Austin Kendall will be throwing the ball around plenty in Lawrence. He’s already thrown for 669 yards this season and six scores, though he’s also thrown three interceptions. His top target is freshman wide receiver Sam James, who’s averaging over 11 yards per catch.
What WVU needs to focus on going forward is eliminating mistakes. The Mountaineers have already committed 10 or more penalties in a game twice this season (against their two FBS opponents). They also have a -4 turnover margin against FBS teams this season without a single takeaway (they were +3 against FCS James Madison). West Virginia has just one interception this season, which poses an interesting situation against Stanley, who has thrown three of his own. Its run defense also struggled two weeks ago against Missouri but bounced back last weekend, holding the Wolfpack to just 3.9 yards per carry.
Will the play calling be similar to last week? Stanley is comfortable with RPO action and he’s said as much multiple times. There were plenty of those in the gameplan against Boston College and he was clearly more comfortable (following his interception on the first play of the game, anyway). The running backs will be able to get theirs regardless, but calling smart, comfortable plays for a quarterback who has already experienced plenty of highs and lows is paramount. Along the same vein, not calling the same unsuccessful plays over and over in the face of adversity is also going to be important (think back to the constant I-formation sets on third downs versus Coastal Carolina).
How much will junior wide receiver Tevin Bush affect the offense? Or, another spin on the same thought, how will Bush be assimilated back into the offense? Bush served a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules, missing last week’s victory. The speedy 5-foot-6 receiver is averaging more yards per reception than James and led West Virginia in receiving Week 1. His speed is a huge factor for the Mountaineers’ offense and should make it a more dangerous attack. If there’s no rust from the week off, it will make things a lot easier on Brown, Kendall and the WVU offense overall while creating another difficult assignment for KU’s defensive backs.
Williams. Herbert received all the adulation for the Boston College game, but Williams racked up over 100 yards and a score as well in the win (22 carries and 121 yards, to be exact). He’s been undeniably good in his first two games in 2019, but he hasn’t had the explosive, drop-your-jaw kind of performance he became known for last season yet. West Virginia’s run defense, again, isn’t exactly great, so Williams should have plenty of opportunities for chunk plays. Getting him involved in the passing game is solid option as well, giving him a chance to use his speed in the open field. We should see a somewhat balanced load for both Williams and Herbert (with some run for junior Dom Williams as well), but Pooka is the top candidate for a breakout game.
Kendall. He’s an upperclassman but doesn’t have much playing experience after he transferred from Oklahoma to West Virginia. Given the impotence of the Mountaineers’ run game, Kendall has to be smart with the ball and make plays through the air. The Jayhawks have a decent pass rush (seven sacks through three games) and a quality secondary, so there will be plenty of obstacles for Kendall to navigate. Kansas’ ability to force a mistake may be the deciding factor in the game.