For Kansas, O-line potential key to victory

For Kansas, O-line potential key to victory

The way Fox Sports broadcasting duo Steve Physioc and Yogi Roth see it, the biggest component in a Kansas victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday won't be quarterback Jordan Webb, the improved speed on both sides of the ball or the quartet of talented running backs in the backfield. It will be the five healthy offensive linemen paving the road.

All throughout fall camp, the Kansas coaches preached it.

Last weekend, fans and media got their first real look at it. Friday, Steve Physioc and Yogi Roth sat down and took a long, hard look at it themselves on film.

"It," of course, is the improvement of the Kansas Jayhawks football team.

"I think they're much improved," Physioc said. "Because I think the young athletes know exactly what Turner Gill is about."

The Fox Sports broadcasting duo would be in a position to know, as they personally handled a number of games in 2010 - Gill's inaugural season on the Hill.

To Physioc, the biggest difference between the current iteration of the Jayhawks and the last is the familiarity that comes in Year Two of a coaching change. When Gill arrived, he did so with expectations, rules and regulations that differed greatly from those of former head coach Mark Mangino.

That being the case, an adjustment period on behalf of everyone involved with the program was, perhaps, only natural. And those growing pains manifested themselves in the form of just three wins last season.

However, the 2011 season has already brought with it evidence of the ship beginning to right itself. After falling to FCS foe North Dakota State by a score of 6-3 in the 2010 season opener, the Jayhawks throttled a quality McNeese State squad last weekend, 42-24, on the strength of a revamped rushing attack and a boatload of exciting young talent.

"This year, I think what's happening is they're buying in," Physioc explained. "He has a quarterback that understands his offense. He has a running back that understands the system. He has a veteran offensive line."

It's that veteran offensive line that Roth sees as perhaps the most important component to a Kansas victory Saturday, when Northern Illinois rolls to town.

The starting contingent of Jeff Spikes, Trevor Marrongelli, Jeremiah Hatch, Duane Zlatnik and Tanner Hawkinson were a crew of veritable steamrollers versus MSU, helping the Kansas offense rack up more than 300 yards on the ground and more than five yards per carry.

"That's where the battle is," Roth said. "Finally, Kansas has some consistency on the offensive line. They didn't get injured, not one injury all training camp. Finally, everyone is there. They're a stout group."

They'll need to be once again Saturday, as the Huskies are a formidable opponent. After capping off an 11-3 2010 campaign with a 40-17 pasting of Fresno State in the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl, first-year head coach Dave Doeren's team picked up right where they left off in Week One of 2011 - throttling Army 49-26.

For Northern Illinois, everything offensively starts with senior quarterback Chandler Harnish. On the preseason watch lists for both the Maxwell and O'Brien Award, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior already has his name scrawled all over the Huskies record books.

In 2010, Harnish threw for 2,530 yards and tacked on another 836 on the ground, accounting for 28 total touchdowns. Perhaps even more remarkable was his efficiency, as he completed 64.7-percent of his pass attempts and threw just five interceptions.

In the win over Army, he threw for five touchdowns, ran for another and allowed a single interception.

He doesn't just stack up against the best in the Big 12, Roth said, but the best in the country. His passion for the game fuels the entire team.

"When you're a quarterback, like it or not your mentality bleeds out to the rest of the program," he explained. "And this is a guy who loves contact, seeks it out, is trying to hit somebody, is trying to keep his team inspired and engaged throughout the entire game."

The effectiveness of Harnish is a big reason why the Kansas offensive line - though an "A" game from the defensive line obviously wouldn't hurt - will be so critical Saturday.

In order to keep him off the field, ball control will be the key. And at first blush, that may seem a simple task. After all, the Jayhawks did turn in a dominant rushing performance in Week One, and despite taking the loss Army racked up more than 300 yards on the ground of their own versus Northern Illinois, and an impressive 4.8 yards per carry average.

To Physioc's way of thinking, however, Kansas fans shouldn't be too quick to make assumptions based on one week of play.

"Army runs successfully against Notre Dame or Ohio State," he said. "It's just what they do. I absolutely agree with Yogi when he said it's going to won up front. I don't think the key is necessarily going to be Jordan Webb or James Sims. I think it's going to be the five offensive linemen."

"I kind of believe if they can do that," he added. "If they can win the run game and control the clock maybe 33 minutes to 27, KU has a great shot to win."

Physioc and Roth will be handling the play-by-play and color commentary duties respectively Saturday night, as the game will be broadcast on Fox College Sports. Kickoff is slated for 6:10 p.m.

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