LAWRENCE (AP) — Circle the wagons and rally the troops. The cliches rolled off the tongues of just about every member of the Kansas Jayhawks’ football team Tuesday afternoon, and with good reason.
After a blowout loss to Georgia Tech two weeks ago, Kansas had a week off to ruminate over one of the worst defensive performances in school history. The numbers are startling and sobering, but they also proved to be a rallying cry — cue another cliche — for a team in need of a spark.
“Having this bye week just before conference play, it gave us a time to actually figure out exactly what we want to do,” linebacker Darius Willis said, “exactly how we want to attack.”
The Jayhawks believe they’ve ironed out many of their ills in the 10 days since the 66-24 loss to the Yellow Jackets. It’s a good thing, too, because they open Big 12 play on Saturday against Texas Tech, which has added a stout running game to what has long been a prolific pass offense.
“It brought us together, this bye week, and showed us where we can be,” Willis said.
Which is anywhere besides where they were two weeks ago in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech ran for 604 yards and seven touchdowns against Kansas, putting two players over 100 yards on a combined 10 carries. As a team, the Yellow Jackets averaged more than 12 yards per rushing attempt, and quarterback Tevin Washington was so ruthlessly effective that he completed just four passes for 164 yards and two more touchdowns.
Kansas struggled in season-opening wins over McNeese State and Northern Illinois, but nothing to that extent. And it’s caused plenty of heat for first-year defensive coordinator Vic Shealy.
The Jayhawks are allowing an average of 282 yards rushing per game and 550 yards of total offense, both dead last in the nation. The pass defense ranks 102nd out of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and it’s only that good because teams like Georgia Tech have run so successfully against Kansas that they haven’t had to throw the ball a whole lot.
Now, the Jayhawks get to face the nation’s ninth-ranked passing offense in Texas Tech and a quarterback in Seth Doege who is putting up video game-like numbers. Two weeks ago, he set an NCAA record by completing 40 of his 44 passes (90.9 percent), five of them for touchdowns.
“We all know we’re a better defense than we’ve shown,” said Toben Opurum, who is tied for eighth nationally in tackles for loss, giving the defense some semblance of a bright spot.
Hard to believe that it could be much worse.
KU head coach Turner Gill wouldn’t speak specifically about what has changed over the bye week, but he did acknowledge that playing time may be spread around differently than in the first three games, and that there has been an overhaul in the defensive scheme put in place.
Part of that has to do with the offenses — the Yellow Jackets are run-oriented; the Red Raiders rely on the pass. But part of it also has to do with the fact that what Kansas was doing wasn’t working.
“I think it was good for us to just kind of regroup,” Gill said. “Now we have a pretty good idea what we need to improve on, what our strengths are, so I think it was good for us to have that time (during the bye) to sit down and really evaluate a little deeper.
“That’s hard to do when you’re in the middle of the week and you have to prepare for a game,” Gill said. “But I’m glad we had it and I think we did some things to improve our football team.”
While it’s easy to hang heads and point fingers after the blitzing put on by Georgia Tech, Gill said he’s noticed none of that in the locker room or on the practice field. He praised the few senior leaders for bringing the team together during the bye week — for circling the wagons and rallying the troops — and promised that the positive mindset will yield positive results soon enough.
“Our guys are resilient,” Gill said. “They came back, they were eager to be taught, they want to be taught football. They want to know what I, what we, can do to be a better football team, and that’s what you want to see. They came back here ready to work, and that’s what you got to do.”