The Charlie Weis era at Kansas started Saturday night with a victory worthy of the polite, tennis match-like applause it received for most of the night from a wary band of Jayhawk fans.
What does a 31-17 win over South Dakota State mean? It means, I suppose, that Weis is only the third Kansas coach since 1939 — and there have been 17 of them — to win his opener.
It means that unlike Turner Gill, his predecessor, Weis avoided a shocking and embarrassing defeat in his first game. Remember’s Kansas’ 6-3 loss to North Dakota State in Gill’s debut two seasons ago? Of course you do, no matter how much you try and forget.
It means KU did enough good things to keep the fire burning for a fan base that feels bruised by two seasons of futility with Gill and is still not sure what the heck happened at the end of Mark Mangino’s seven-season run.
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South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner filled Memorial Stadium with tension when he broke a 99-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, giving the Jackrabbits an early lead.
Nobody was expecting that, least of all Zenner. He’s a tailback who lacks typical tailback speed, yet he was able to pull away from some of the guys in the Kansas secondary as he labored toward the end zone.
South Dakota State finished with 411 yards of offense, so concerns about KU’s defense were not quashed.
But the Jayhawks did pick off four passes by SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner. There were two KU sacks and a fumble recovery.
Offensively, all eyes were on new quarterback Dayne Crist, whose job it is to build a bridge to the future since he’ll only be around for this season after transferring from Notre Dame, Weis’ old stomping grounds.
Those wanting to paint a rosy picture will point out Crist’s impressive arm strength, displayed on the Jayhawks’ first offensive play that resulted in a 43-yard completion to Kale Pick. Crist was sacked only once and almost always had plenty of time to scan his available receivers before making a decision on where to fling the ball.
Those with a less-generous viewpoint will cite Crist’s 17-of-36 performance for only 169 yards. Yes, 36 pass attempts should get you more than 169 yards, especially when 43 yards come on the first play of the game.
Crist was an effective quarterback for the first nine games of the 2010 season at Notre Dame, passing for 2,033 yards and completing 174 of 294 attempts. He suffered a torn patella tendon late in that season and played sparingly last season. He’s in a rebuilding mode so it’s far too early to make a judgment. However, if KU fans were expecting to see a big improvement over Jordan Webb, last season’s quarterback who left for Colorado after Weis was hired and expressed a desire to go with someone new at quarterback, they didn’t get it Saturday night.
They might get it later.
“I’m very disappointed with how I played,’’ Crist said. “I left a ton of throws out on the field.’’
Crist, though, shouldn’t be expected to put KU’s offense on his shoulders. And he shouldn’t have to with running backs Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox, who combined for 253 yards and three touchdowns.
Pierson did enough in 2011 – 396 yards on 71 carries – to warrant a much more prolonged look this season. And Cox showed that his credentials at College of the Siskiyous in California, where he rushed for 2,744 yards and 28 touchdowns in two seasons, were no fluke.
The potential of the running game is enticing.
“We’re deep in talent at running back,’’ Weis said. “Those guys were both effective and it allowed us to really control field position. But the No. 1 thing I wanted to make sure we got accomplished was winning the football game. I knew there would be ups and downs and not everything would be perfect right out of the box.’’
Kansas scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to finally put some distance between itself and the Jackrabbits, building a 24-7 lead. But South Dakota State scored the next 10 points. There were some tense moments before a three-yard touchdown run by Cox with 3:03 left made it a two-touchdown margin.
“If you looked at our players, they had genuine joy on their face,’’ Weis said. “I thought it was a good start; it was a pretty good experience.’’
Weis knows this is a long-haul project and that instant gratification will be in short supply. Tougher times are coming for the Jayhawks.
“This was far from a thing of beauty,’’ Weis said.
There is a major makeover under way at Kansas. Beauty is far down the road. The Jayhawks just don’t want to be ugly any more. In breaking a 10-game losing streak Saturday night, they weren’t awful to look at.
It’s a start.