Jayhawks roll in 2011 opener, 42-24

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Head Coach Turner Gill may not have set out with the goal of running the ball on 85-percent of his team's plays Saturday night, but an average of more than five yards per carry has a way of changing a coach's mind. All told, the Jayhawks racked up 400 total yards of offense - 301 of it on the ground - as they defeated McNeese State and started the 2011 season with a bang.

With eight minutes remaining in the third quarter Saturday night, Kale Pick was running open down the field.

And not just open, but wide open. The kind of wide open that causes one to wave frantically at the quarterback - which he did - and the crowd to gasp in anticipation - which it did. Rolling out of the pocket to his left near midfield, Kansas sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb spied his junior wide receiver and quickly launched the ball his way.

Knowing there was nothing between him and paydirt but a stretch of emerald green turf, Pick was ready. He lifted his arms in anticipation of the catch - and then watched as another blue-clad form darted in front of him, snagging the ball out of the air.

Ever quick to react, Pick turned and threw a block at the nearest defender, springing true freshman JaCorey Shepherd free as his first reception as a Jayhawk turned into a 56-yard touchdown.

"He made a great play," Pick said, grinning. "But I was ready for the catch if he wasn't going to catch it, so I'll put it that way."

"I really didn't know he was behind me," added the soft-spoken Shepherd, with a smile of his own. "I saw the ball, and it was within reaching distance, so I just went up and grabbed it."

It was that kind of night for the Kansas offense - a night in which the demons of a 2010 season-opening loss to North Dakota State were exorcised - as the Jayhawks rolled McNeese State 42-24 at Memorial Stadium.

Throughout the fall, one of the most consistent talking points among everyone from coaches and players to fans and media has been the ballyhooed freshman class and, more specifically, the speed it brings to the table.

Despite rainy conditions that caused a 25-minute delay in the opening kickoff, it didn't take long for the more than 40,000 fans on hand to get a glimpse at what all the fuss was about. Forced to punt after a three-and-out on their opening drive, the Jayhawks got the ball back with 8:11 left in the first quarter, and set about establishing dominance on the ground.

Sophomore James Sims rushed for 30 yards on the first play of the drive, and after a screen pass to senior wideout Daymond Patterson netted just a yard, true freshman Darrian Miller - a native of nearby Blue Springs (MO) High School - carried three straight times for chunks of yardage, juking and powering his way through seams in the MSU defense.

While Miller never had the opportunity to flash the full extent of his speed in the open field, he did give Kansas fans a tantalizing look at his capabilities, carrying 13 times - almost exclusively between the tackles - for 64 yards.

It took St. Louis native Tony Pierson - another ultra-talented true freshmen - even less time to make an impact. He trotted on to the field early in the second quarter, and on his first play from scrimmage burst through a hole on the left side of the line and proceeded to streak 47 yards downfield before a desperation shove by defender Terence Cahee pushed him out of bounds at the 8-yard line, saving a touchdown.

Pierson rushed just five times Saturday night but for an impressive 73 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown run late in the half on just his second carry of the game.

"You never know," said Head Coach Turner Gill, of the two true freshmen backs. "I knew they had talent. I didn't know if it was going to come to fruition in this ball game, but it was great to see it. When they got their touches, they produced."

Somewhat lost in the excitement surrounding the newcomer trio's impressive debut is the fact that Sims - practically a wily veteran when compared to the rest of the Kansas stable of running backs - was the team's leading rusher, topping the 100-yard mark (104) on just 19 carries and scoring a touchdown of his own.

So dominant was the running game that the Jayhawks ran the ball 55 times, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and accounting for 85-percent of their offensive plays. Even Webb got into the act, carrying eight times for 39 yards, mostly on read option plays, and a touchdown.

With the offensive line generating a consistent push up front all night, and the backs producing, Gill said there was no reason to mess with a good thing.

"I think it's just when things are working, there's no need to get away from it," the second-year head coach explained, of the running attack. "We were averaging a pretty good yards per carry, so I just thought we should keep doing what we were doing."

Not that Webb minded. With the Jayhawks pounding out 301 net yards on the ground, he attempted just 10 passes on the night. The up side? Play-action typically found his receivers running wide open - almost comically so at times - and he completed seven of the 10 for 146 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

Shepherd led the Kansas receiving corps with three catches for 107 yards in his debut, tacking on a second touchdown in the fourth quarter; this time on a 46-yard reception after which he breezed into the end zone, when Webb found him all alone near the Kansas sideline.

"It definitely takes a lot of the pressure off of me," Webb said. "If we're able to run the ball on 3rd and 11 that close to the goal line and get the conversion, it takes a lot of the pressure off of me."

Coaches and teammates have praised their young signal-caller's improvement throughout the fall, and Saturday Gill felt he lived up to that praise.

"What you saw today is what we've been seeing all along," he said. "He's really matured, understands our offense - being able to do the things in the right way and execute our plays."

It wasn't all sunshine and roses, however. Despite the lopsided score, the Kansas defense - newly shifted to a 3-4 alignment and with plenty of new faces of its own - struggled at times to slow down the MSU passing attack. In fact, Cowboys quarterbacks Cody Stroud and Riley Dodge racked up a combined 325 yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns.

Much of the damage was done with screen passes, an element of the game at which Kansas defensive coordinator Vic Shealy said MSU is more complex than perhaps any other opponent on the schedule.

Though the defense held the Cowboys rushing attack to just 2.8 yards per carry on 34 carries, the first-year DC knows his unit has plenty to shore up before next week's match-up with Northern Illinois - a team with Top 25 potential.

"I was not happy with how we closed," Shealy said. "We have to play better at corner. We didn't play well enough to compete in the Big 12 at the level we want to compete."

The Jayhawks (1-0) will take on the Huskies (1-0) next Saturday at 6 p.m. The game is slated to be televised by Fox College Sports.