LAWRENCE — It was a simple slant, a five-yard in-cut, and in a moment, Tony Pierson was gone. It was early in the second quarter on Saturday night at Rice Stadium in Houston, and Pierson was finishing off the kind of play that makes him a football player of such promise and electricity.
Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps had hit Pierson for a 77-yard touchdown pass — the longest completion by a KU team in nearly six years. And if you put a stopwatch on Pierson, he covered the final 70 yards of the catch-and-run in close to seven seconds.
“Broke a tackle,” Pierson said after the game, “and I was scot-free,”
It was also, in hindsight, the kind of play that makes KU’s passing-game struggles so frustrating after Saturday’s 23-14 loss at Rice Stadium. In the offseason, KU coach Charlie Weis imagined putting Pierson in a hybrid, playmaking role for the Jayhawks, a role similar to the one that Tavon Austin played for West Virginia last season.
But after two weeks, it appears that KU is still figuring out the most efficient way to get the ball in Pierson’s mitts as often as possible. In two games, he’s been limited to just six catches and six carries in the backfield. The fact that Pierson has averaged 14.8 yards per touch makes it all the more confounding that he hasn’t been more involved.
“Still figuring it out,” Pierson said. “It’s only week two. So we’re just gonna keep coming in and working at it.”
On Saturday, Pierson finished with just five touches (four receptions and one rushing attempt), and the general assessment was that Rice began to shade a safety over the top after Pierson broke his long touchdown in the first half.
“It just seemed like they started double-teaming me,” Pierson said.
But if the Owls were determined to contain Pierson, the KU offense didn’t take advantage of other mismatches in the passing game. And after a 1-1 start to the season, the Jayhawks’ popgun air attack could be the program’s most pressing concern.
After two weeks, KU ranks 113th in the nation in passing offense, averaging a paltry 140 yards. Heaps has completed just 23 of 48 pass attempts for 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The sample size is small, of course, and Heaps has been handcuffed by receiver drops that number in the double-digits after two games. Take even 80 percent of those drops, and add them back into Heaps’ completion percentage, and he’s suddenly completing close to 65 percent of his passes.
“On third-down,” Weis said after the game, “when the quarterback hits you in the chest, you need to catch the ball. You know that, I know that, and the players know that, too.”
For now, Weis said, KU must find a way to get better performances from the current crop of receivers and tight ends. But after two games against teams from non-BCS conferences, it’s mildly alarming how close the passing numbers resemble last season, when KU’s passing game was one of the worst in the country.
Last season, after two games, quarterback Dayne Crist had completed just 33 of 64 for 313 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. The passing game would not progress, and Crist was benched by midseason, sitting in favor of freshman Michael Cummings and a more ground-oriented attack.
After Saturday’s game, Weis said a choppy first half had taken Kansas out of what they wanted to do. (KU ran just 15 plays in the first 15 minutes.) By the end, the Jayhawks’ running backs recorded a combined 23 carries, while Heaps threw the ball 28 times.
Weis often exalts the benefits of playing “complementary football” — his way of preaching a balanced run-pass ratio. But on Saturday, whether it was Pierson’s limited touches, or the total lack of continuity on offense, Heaps identified a problem that needs addressing.
“We wish we could capitalize on opportunities,” Heaps said. “And they did a good job of paying attention to Tony and what he was doing. And they really paid attention to where he was at, at all times. But that opens things up for other guys and we just gotta capitalize on that.”