Key play: South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner torched the KU defense for a 99-yard TD run with 8:33 left in the first quarter.
Key stat: Quarterback Dayne Crist settled in and completed 8 of 13 passes for 101 yards, helping KU tie the score at 7-7.
Key play: Juco transfer Josh Ford blocked a punt — the Jayhawks’ second of the day — inside the Jackrabbits’ 10, setting up a 22-yard field goal from Ron Doherty.
Key stat: Crist watch: The senior QB was zero for five passing in the second quarter as KU’s offense struggled to get in sync for the rest of the half.
Key play: Sophomore running back Tony Pierson finally provided some breathing room, busting loose for a 47-yard TD run and giving KU a 17-7 lead with 10:22 left in the third quarter.
Key stat: Senior tight end Mike Ragone, a transfer from Notre Dame, hauled in the first touchdown catch of his college career on a fourth-down play with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
Key play: Running back Taylor Cox plowed into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown, securing the victory.
Key stat: The biggest one of the night: After 10 straight losses, KU picked up its first win since Sept. 10 of last season, a 45-42 victory over Northern Illinois.
Offense: B-. Dayne Crist showcased his ability to make some tough throws, but never seemed to click on all cylinders. Sophomore Tony Pierson and juco transfer Taylor Cox combined to make a nice combo in the backfield.
Defense: C-. If you had visions of Turner Gill after the Jackrabbits’ 99-yard touchdown run, you weren’t alone. The D settled down at times, but it was still a shaky effort overall.
Special teams: B. It started ominously, with kicker Ron Doherty missing a 35-yard field goal attempt on the first drive of the game. But the unit rallied with blocked punts by Chris Omigie and Josh Ford.
Coaching: B. Charlie Weis’ debut started slow, and maybe it wasn’t as “convincing” as he wanted it to be. But the Jayhawks won a game. For that, Weis gets graded on a gracious curve.
Player of the game: Running back Tony Pierson had too much speed, gashing South Dakota State with long runs for most of the night, including a 47-yard haymaker early in the third quarter. The sophomore went over 100 yards for the first time in his career.
Reason to hope: Hey, KU won a game. The student section was packed in the first half. And it appears that everyone emerged healthy from Saturday’s game. That’s a good start, right?
Reason to mope: Well, this was a Division I-AA team that was starting its backup quarterback, and KU led just 10-7 at halftime. The defense looked improved — to a degree — and the offense looks like it needs a few more reps to build some chemistry and cohesiveness.
Looking ahead: The Jayhawks will return to Memorial Stadium next Saturday for a game against Rice, a team that was throttled by UCLA on Thursday.
The Pierson rules
KU coach Charlie Weis has said that he’d like to protect sophomore running back Tony Pierson by limiting his touches to around 12 to 15 touches per game. Pierson is just 5 feet 11 and 170 pounds. But Pierson hit 20 carries on Saturday — mostly because KU needed to secure the win in the second half.
“We were on a pitch count,” Weis said. “So I knew where we were.
“Well, the game was close. But it wasn’t like (backup) Taylor (Cox) only had 10 touches there. When you run the ball 48 times … sometimes you’re going to go a little bit over.”
Senior tight end Mike Ragone, a sixth-year transfer from Notre Dame who will turn 24 this season, hauled in the first touchdown of his college career from old KU quarterback Dayne Crist late in the third quarter.
“It felt great,” Ragone said. “It felt even better to win the game.”
The KU defense has put an extra emphasis on turnovers this season. And for a night, it paid off. Senior safety Bradley McDougald finished with two interceptions, senior transfer defensive end Josh Williams forced and recovered a fumble, and Tyler Patmon and Corrigan Powell each added a pick.
— Rustin Dodd