Well, this may not have been the way most expected the first chapter of the Charlie Weis Era to be written.
After building a 24-7 lead in the third quarter, the Kansas Jayhawks gave up 10 quick fourth quarter points to visiting South Dakota State, before a Taylor Cox touchdown plunge with 5:36 left in the game pushed the Jayhawks to a 31-17 victory.
Weis described the situation as “utopia” for a head coach. The players get a game under their belt - even better, a win - and get to enjoy themselves for a night before returning to work Sunday. And there will be plenty of constructive criticism to dole out as preparation begins for the next game.
“It is so much easier on Sunday to constructively criticize all the things that happened in a game, especially after a win,” Weis said. “I think it’s a lot tougher after a loss. [The players] can enjoy themselves for the first time in a long time, then tomorrow we can go and look at all the things we did wrong, (and) see if we’ll be able to get better next week.”
The running game was strong for the Jayhawks on Saturday night. Both Cox, a junior college transfer, and starter Tony Pierson finished the game with better than 100 yards rushing - Cox with 125 yards and Pierson with 128 yards. It was the first time two Kansas backs had eclipsed the century mark since the 2007 season-opening win over Central Michigan, when Brandon McAnderson and Jake Sharp accomplished the feat.
Overall, however, it’s probably fair to say the offense wasn’t quite what many expected in the debut of Head Coach Charlie Weis. Quarterback Dayne Crist struggled with his accuracy for much of the night, overthrowing a handful of open receivers, tossing an interception and failing to find a rhythm. For the game he was 17-of-36 for 169 yards, a touchdown and a pick.
It wasn’t all on him, of course. The right side of the offensive line struggled to keep pressure from Crist at times, and the offense leaned heavily to the senior-laden left side because of it. Weis rotated several personnel groupings in and out of the game in an attempt to find a combination that could provide some stability - without a great deal of success.
Additionally, Weis noted people need to remember Saturday represented Crist’s first live game action in almost a year. In a new team, a new environment with big expectations - he was understandably a little rusty, and a little nervous.
“I think that he’ll just get better every single week,” Weis said. “I think he feels really good that he was walking off the field healthy, slowing it down a bunch. Some of it is his fault, some of it is other guys’ fault, but I think we’re pretty happy right now.”
Ironically, the defense that was much maligned the past two seasons showed serious signs of life. The defensive line was substantially improved, with newcomers Jordan Tavai and Josh Williams, as well as Keba Agostinho, Kevin Young, Toben Opurum and Michael Reynolds all playing well.
The statistics might tell a different story. Starting Jackrabbits tailback Zach Zenner ripped off 177 yards on 20 carries for an 8.7 yards per carry average. As a team they tallied 200 yards rushing.
However, a deeper look reveals another perspective. Zenner actually opened scoring in the first quarter with an improbable 99-yard touchdown run, during which he was never touched. Twenty-eight (team) carries for 103 yards sounds an awful lot better than 29 for 202.
The Jayhawks responded to close out the first quarter with a seven play, 47-yard drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown run by Pierson. It was the first salvo in 24 unanswered points for Weis’ offense, stretching into the third quarter. Ron Doherty tagged a 22-yard field goal, Pierson ripped off a 47-yard touchdown run - at the end of which he absolutely dusted the SDSU safety by simply turning on the afterburners - and tight end Mike Ragone caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Crist in the back of the endzone.
It looked as if Kansas were about to blow the doors off the game, but SDSU inserted injured starting quarterback Austin Sumner into the game in the third quarter and he immediately jump-started the passing attack. He finished 14-of-31 for 175 yards and a touchdown, though he did throw four interceptions.
In fact, the Jayhawks were a turnover-producing machine Saturday. In addition to the four interceptions - two of which were snagged by Bradley McDougald - the Kansas defense also caused a pair of fumbles, recovering one of them.
It may not have been pretty, but Weis and Co. head into Week Two with a win, some additional confidence - and lots to work on.