It’s only the third game of the season for Kansas football, but the Jayhawks’ home showdown with Central Michigan at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Memorial Stadium on Fox Sports Net Regional is must-win for the Crimson and Blue.
After last week’s embarrassing 41-3 loss at Duke, KU (1-1) simply cannot afford to register a 1-2 record heading into the Big 12 schedule with Texas looming on Sept. 27. KU is also, in many ways, fighting for head coach Charlie Weis' job and a win over a MAC foe is paramount to righting the ship and improving the sluggish program.
However, CMU (2-1) is a solid team which got KU’s attention in its second game with a convincing 38-17 win at Purdue on Sept 6. Central Michigan won its season opener, 20-16, over Chattanooga before falling at Syracuse, 40-3, last Saturday.
The Chippewas play old-school, physical football.
“Coach (Dan) Enos hired Morris Watts to be his offensive coordinator, who's been coaching for over 50 years, and probably one of the few times you'll get to see a game this year with old-school football on offense,” Weis said. “ Now, he does have all the modern tweaks. He'll spread it out and have all that stuff available to you, but this is an old-school football team, multiple running backs, multiple tight ends, try to pound you, pound you, pound you, pound you, a big group of offensive linemen.”
CMU, which features a balanced rushing and passing attack, averages 20.3 points per game and 290.3 yards of total offense per contest. Quarterback Cooper Rush, a drop-back passer, has completed 44 of 76 passes for 528 yards and four touchdowns.
Weis isn’t focusing his game plan on CMU leading rusher Thomas Rawls, who’s indefinitely suspended.
“If Rawls doesn't go, we'll probably get the most out of (Saylor) Lavallii (15 carries for 41 yards),” Weis said. “I know there's another three guys on the depth chart, but he's clearly second after Rawls as far as how they do it.”
On defense, Central Michigan allows 23.3 points per game and allows just 348.7 yards of total offense. The Chippewas are strong against the pass, limiting foes to 517 yards in three games while recording six interceptions. Linebacker Justin Cherocci leads the team with 23 tackles, while defensive back Tony Annese has grabbed two interceptions.
Weis quickly moved his squad past Duke and onto Central Michigan during team meetings on Sunday. He had a decisive message to his players.
“You've got to put that game in the rear view mirror and you've got to be focusing on Central Michigan because if you don't, you'll get whooped again,” Weis said.
Weis knows he needs a better performance from sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart, who struggled mightily with poise and accuracy against Duke, completing just 11 of 27 passes for 89 yards and two picks. Weis expects Cozart to be much improved Saturday after learning from his mistakes.
“Montell spent Sunday meeting with Ron (Powlus, quarterbacks’ coach), John (Reagan, offensive coordinator) and me,” Weis said. “He had a full plate on Sunday, but at the end of the day when he walked out of there on Sunday, I think he understood, A, what the problems were, and then, B, what we're going to try to do to fix them. ... By the time Montell left on Sunday, I think Montell was feeling a lot better than when Montell walked in because when you see what the issues are and you see what the answers are, and if you believe that the answers can solve the issues, then you're okay. It's when you don't have an answer. That's a bigger issue. But there were a lot of simple things that could be done.”
While Cozart had a “bad day at the office,” Weis singled out four players who played well at Duke, including linebacker Ben Heeney, who tied his career high with 15 tackles, BUCK Victor Simmons, receiver Justin McCay, and defensive lineman T.J. Semke.
Weis also thought the running backs played hard. Corey Avery rushed for 87 yards, while De’Andre Mann rushed for 65.
“I thought the running backs ran the ball really well again,” Weis said. “I thought both those guys have showed that they're going to run tough, and not every yard was easy, but they ran tough in the game. I'm not going to give you illusions of grandeur, we can run the football. If you can't throw it, if you can't score points, you're not going to win.”
Now, Weis just needs the rest of the Jayhawks to elevate their games to have a great day on Saturday and get the program back on the winning track.
For KU, it’s simply gut-check time.
“I think everyone knows that this is a critical game because now you go into the Big 12 stretch that we're about ready to go into," Weis said. "... I think this kind of sets the table, sets the table either way, either sets the table well or it doesn't, sets the table where you're really, really fighting, fighting an uphill battle. Either way you're going to be fighting. I mean, it's a tough league. You're going to be fighting every week.
“But I think if you go out there and play really well against a good, physical team and win the game, I think that you'll be really encouraged going into the next one.”