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Jayhawks find new target in passing game

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012, at 6:21 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, at 7:31 a.m.

Kansas at Northern Illinois

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.

Records: Kansas 1-2, Northern

TV: None

Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

What’s at stake

For Kansas, quite a bit. KU can wipe out a 13-game road losing streak. But even more, a victory would propel the Jayhawks into their bye week with positive feelings. KU squeaked by Northern Illinois last season, the last win of the Turner Gill regime. A loss, however, would continue KU’s slide and leave them 1-3 before playing K-State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas.

Cheers if …

Running back James Sims repeats his performance against Northern Illinois from a year ago, when he had a career-high 26 carries for 110 yards. Sims, playing his first game after a three-game suspension, probably won’t get that many carries. But after the Huskies allowed 487 yards rushing against Army, all of KU’s running backs have to be thinking big.

Jeers if …

The offense doesn’t put up more than 20 points. It’s a recurring theme, but the Jayhawks’ offense couldn’t complement a solid defensive performance against TCU. Quarterback Dayne Crist is completing just more than 50 percent of his passes. Maybe the injection of receiver Andrew Turzilli and Sims will help out.

Three things about Northern Illinois

1 After the Huskies’ loss to KU last season, senior QB Chandler Harnish led the program to an 11-3 season and a victory in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. He was drafted by the Colts with the last pick in the NFL draft, becoming “Mr. Irrelevant.”

2 In addition to head coach Dave Doeren, a Kansas City-area native, Northern Illinois has a handful of local and KU ties. Former KU linebacker Kevin Kane, a Rockhurst High grad, is the linebackers coach, while linebacker Boomer Mays (Eudora High), defensive end Matthew Baltimore (Olathe East), linebacker Videl Nelson (Staley), defensive tackle Donovan Gordon (Raytown South) and defensive end Joe Windsor (Kearney) are on the roster.

3 Northern Illinois, which leads the Mid-American Conference with an 80-50 record since 2002, is one of 10 Division I programs to win 10 games the past two years.

Rustin Dodd’s pick: Northern Illinois 30-26

The Jayhawks have the roster to end Northern Illinois’ 16-game home winning streak. But Kansas would need a complete game — an offensive awakening and more progress on defense — and the Jayhawks haven’t put it all together yet. KU will be plenty motivated … but so will Northern Illinois. And this game will be decided late.

— They call him “Big Drew,” the soft-spoken receiver with a vat full of raw talent. They say he may be the Kansas Jayhawks’ fastest receiver, a sure-handed target who stays after practice to catch extra balls. They say Andrew Turzilli may be the quietest, too.

“Laid-back dude,” says senior receiver Daymond Patterson.

Turzilli, a redshirt sophomore, may be all these things. And perhaps this explains why Turzilli just needed a little time to grow, a little time to mature — and why he’s now adding another dimension to a Kansas passing game that was cardboard flat for the season’s first two games.

Last week against TCU, the 6-foot-4 Turzilli finished with three receptions for a career-high 100 yards. He hauled in two catches for more than 40 yards. Quarterback Dayne Crist suddenly had a reliable deep threat.

And when KU returns to the field at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for its first road test at Northern Illinois, Turzilli will be in the starting lineup for the first time in his career.

“I think he knows he belongs,” Crist says.

For the better part of the last year, this is what the Kansas coaching staff has been pleading and pushing for. During spring ball and fall camp, Turzilli’s gifts stood out. But something was missing. The Jayhawks had three seniors — Daymond Patterson, D.J. Beshears and Kale Pick — slotted into the starting receiver spots, and Turzilli was just too passive.

“You have to be willing to take an older guy’s job,” KU coach Charlie Weis says. “And sometimes people don’t understand that. You have to be willing to not say, ‘Well, he’s a senior, when he’s gone, then it will be mine.’ You have to be willing to go take it.”

Turzilli, of course, has always been this way. When he committed to Kansas and then-coach Mark Mangino before his senior year of high school, where he was a two-sport star in basketball and football in Butler, N.J., he went months without telling anyone outside his close circle of friends and family.

Turzilli also says that he had problems mastering the playbook during his first two years in Lawrence. As a result, he had just three catches last season as a redshirt freshman, and he could never put his 4.45-second 40-yard dash time to work.

“I wasn’t able to play as fast as I wanted to,” he says.

An injury to Pick in the Rice loss opened the door for Turzilli, who moved past Beshears on the depth chart.

“He wasn’t just a bigger guy,” Weis says. “He was also getting open.”

The hope is that Turzilli’s big-play potential — along with the emergence of junior Chris Omigie — will give Crist some more playmakers.

After beginning the season with two straight clunkers, Crist found a measure of success against TCU, finishing 19 for 39 passing for more than 300 yards. All week long, Weis had told Crist to relax and have fun. But perhaps some of the good times were derived from seeing Turzilli streaking down the sideline while gaining some separation from defenders.

“I just like to make the big plays,” Turzilli says.

Consider: In the Jayhawks’ first two games, Crist completed two passes for more than 20 yards. With Turzilli and Omigie more involved against TCU, Crist hit on five completions that went for at least that long.

“The thing with me and Dayne,” Turzilli says, “… before the ball is snapped, we kind of look at each other. And we know he’s gonna throw it to me. He makes that little signal at me — I’m going deep.”

This is part of what Turzilli imagined when Crist arrived from Notre Dame. Turzilli loves studying other wideouts. And when Crist arrived, he immediately recalled Michael Floyd, a former standout receiver from Notre Dame who had served as one of Crist’s deep threats at Notre Dame.

“Dayne’s got a real strong, powerful arm,” Turzilli says.

Turzilli had one crucial drop against TCU — a back-shoulder throw that haunted him for a few days afterward. But Turzilli says he’s mostly moved on. He’s a starter now. And there’s plenty more catches to make.

“I just have a little bit more confidence when I’m out there,” Turzilli says, “so it’s definitely a change.”

Check Rustin Dodd’s Jayhawk Dispatch blog at blogs.kansas.com/jayhawks. Reach him at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com.

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