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Bob Lutz: Strategy shift muffles KU running game

  • Published Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012, at 5:55 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012, at 8:27 a.m.

— First off, Kansas didn’t get blown out by TCU on Saturday. The Jayhawks kept their heads above water, losing 20-6 to a team that was expected to make loud noises in its first Big 12 football game.

This is a step in the right direction for KU. But it’s a baby step, considering the Horned Frogs coughed the ball up four times deep inside Kansas territory – at the 9, 23, goal line and 6. TCU also missed a short field-goal try.

So yeah, if you’re someone who doesn’t believe in fairy tales or Santa Claus, you might look at this game as one that should have been something like 40-6. But if you’re Kansas coach Charlie Weis and his players, still getting used to one another and fighting dreadfully low expectations, then this game is something more encouraging.

Weis was adamant that there is no such a thing as a moral victory, but I couldn’t tell if he had his fingers crossed. Just to keep this game close, by any means necessary, might be a small achievement, but it was an achievement. And that’s really the reasonable goal for KU in this transition season – to mark achievements.

KU has no identity, really. Maybe, though, the Jayhawks are starting to form one as a ball-hawking, turnover-creating defense. Through three games, KU has recovered seven fumbles and picked off five passes. That’s something to go on, for sure.

Problem is, all of those recovered fumbles and interceptions are leading to precious few points. Field position was the Jayhawks’ enemy Saturday; it’s too bad some of those TCU fumbles couldn’t have taken place on the other end of the field.

KU’s best scoring chance came late, when the Jayhawks drove deep before quarterback Dayne Crist lost a fumble that was recovered by TCU in its end zone. A touchdown there, even with less than a minute to play, and who knows?

“I was proud they competed their butts off for 60 minutes,’’ Weis said of his team, now 1-2 going into a non-conference game at Northern Illinois next week. “But still, there were too many missed opportunities. We did some good things that kept us hanging around in the game; we just didn’t get enough done offensively.’’

Kansas rolled up 380 yards and Crist, already a punching bag for criticism after just a couple of games, threw for a season-high 303 yards.

But Crist needed 39 pass attempts and it was surprising that Weis went away from a running game that has been the Jayhawks’ strong suit.

He explained that an early deficit and an inexperienced TCU secondary led to the decision to throw more, but this was a relatively tight game throughout and given more opportunities to pass, Crist’s performance diminished.

He was 9 for 12 for 117 yards in the first half, but 10 for 27 in the second and there was a stretch in the fourth quarter when he completed 1 of 10 attempts.

Meanwhile, running backs Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox, who had combined for 444 yards and 6.4 yards per carry in two games, became thumb-twiddlers.

Cox had seven carries for 40 yards in the first quarter but got the ball only four times the rest of the way.

Pierson, meanwhile, became more of a threat in the passing game than as a rusher. After four first-quarter carries, he rushed only five times afterward but did catch six passes for 99 yards and Weis, to his credit, tried to find more creative ways to move the football.

The Kansas running attack was limited to 77 yards on 26 carries after averaging 229 yards and 42 carries previously.

Weis obviously decided early on that a stingy TCU defense was intent on slowing down the Kansas rushing attack and that there might be holes in pass coverage for Crist to explore.

But is Crist at a point where he can be trusted with that much responsibility?

“We threw the ball downfield more than usual,’’ Weis said. “I think the quarterback got beat up pretty well, too. But he stood right in there and took the hits, and when we got down two scores we had to start slinging it.’’

I couldn’t have come up with a better word for what Kansas was doing in the passing game, especially in the second half. Crist did hit some big plays; eight of his completions were for at least 16 yards and he had 42- and 41-yard strikes to sophomore receiver Andrew Turzilli.

Still, I don’t think Crist can be entrusted to try and win a game with his arm. He needs all the help he can get, and that KU running game has been the team’s obvious strength.

After a promising start on the ground against TCU, though, Weis turned the ball mostly over to a quarterback who is still getting his feet under him. The quarterback played better, for sure. But the quarterback was asked to do too much, especially given what Kansas has in its backfield.

Check Bob Lutz’s blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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