Northwestern 28, Kansas 20

LAWRENCE--Sure, it rained like mad, a crazy kind of rain we hadn't seen in these parched parts in months. About the only thing missing was an ark and a two-by-two animal march up the gangway. Still, as much as the moisture was needed, those didn't seem much like tears from heaven falling on the greater Lawrence area Saturday.

Especially if you were one of the 27,775 waterlogged faithful in Memorial Stadium who life-jacketed it through the Jayhawks' 28-20 loss to Northwestern in a supremely soggy season opener.

A deluge of disappointment is what it was.

Right?

Well, uh, sure. We guess that's what you'd call it. And yes, coach Mark Mangino confirmed that he had a KU locker room awash in frustration over the defeat. Then again, the second-year KU coach wasn't weeping, wasn't muttering, wasn't pointing the fickle finger of blame at anybody.

Matter of fact, he was surprisingly upbeat, all things considered.

"We played hard tonight," Mangino said. "I was proud of our team because we played hard the whole time. We did make a few mistakes. I am disappointed that we did not win and there is a locker room full of disappointed kids."

"But after this game I want to dwell on the positives. Our defense is much improved from last season. We need to make some adjustments in the secondary, but we are better on defense. The offensive line played well."

"There are no excuses. I don't care if it is 150 degrees or if we are in the middle of a typhoon. We want to take the positives and build on them."

Just how critical this loss will be to the retooling process at Kansas is really up to the Jayhawks. Most observers outside the program, myself included, figured KU faced a must-win here--and indeed in all its non-league games--just to have a shot at a .500 or, gulp, bowl-eligible campaign.

But in the aftermath, KU's main man was, uh, the calm in the eye of the storm. Perhaps the constant rain cooled him into it. Or maybe, just maybe - What's that, coach?

"We had a lot of kids play big tonight. We had some guys go down on defense and we had to play some kids on defense who were on the scout team earlier this week. There is no comfort in this loss," Mangino said. "We just need to continue to get better and work toward our goals."

While it would be profoundly silly to assess this team on its performance in one game--win or lose--there clearly surfaced some issues that must be addressed for Kansas to keep climbing back to respectability.

  • The retooled defensive line rarely put any sort of pressure on the quarterback and rarer still stopped the run. The leading tackler among linemen was backup nose tackle Cory Kipp with two stops, and Kansas didn't record a single sack or quarterback hurry. It is, however, prudent to remember that KU was playing with a duct-taped and baling-wired interior D--tackle Travis Watkins didn't play due to injury and tackle Chuck Jones exited in the first quarter, also due to injury. Thus KU was reduced to playing its paper-thin depth--guys who'd been on the scout team earlier in the week were pressed into duty.
  • Quarterback Bill Whittemore's accuracy was, well, missing in action for the most part. Certainly, he may have had a little rust in his first game since last fall's Mizzou contest when he blew out the knee, but it seemed from our viewpoint that he just wasn't comfortable staying in the pocket and trying to pick out receivers. Whittemore seems to be a better passer when he's moving around--witness his third-quarter, scrambling strike to Mark Simmons that the fleet sophomore turned into a 74-yard touchdown (KU's only offensive score of the night). It's understandable that to protect him from potential injury, Mangino doesn't want Whittemore running the ball nearly so much this season as last. Still, looking at last night's game, one would hope to see more passing schemes designed to get Whittemore moving and back in his comfort zone.
  • Running back Clark Green was underutilized. The sophomore rushed 17 times for 79 yards, but wouldn't you like to see him carry it about 10 more times a game? Actually, that would have brought the run-pass game into more of a balance last night. Overall, KU ran it 27 times for 100 yards, while the Jayhawks racked up 255 yards passing on 30 tosses. We thought we'd see a few more rushing attempts than passes, particularly on a soggy night. Plus, committing more to the running game opens up play-action, which was a fairly non-existent option for KU against Northwestern.
We could go on, but those are the big three that stuck out. Among the positives--and yes, there were positives:

  • We loved the linebacking play, particularly that of sophomore Gabe Toomey, who was credited with 12 tackles--seven of them unassisted--and who had three tackles for loss. The big Iowa boy has a big nose for the football, friends. He's gonna be special.
  • We thought the offensive line looked as solid as it's looked since, well, the mid-'90s. Joe Vaughn at center IS a stud. Just watch how he carries through on his blocks.
  • We were impressed that there was no quit in this squad. To see Kansas scratch and claw back from a 14-0 deficit and keep battling down to the final snap was refreshing after the quick-to-mail-it-in efforts of recent seasons. The effort and enthusiasm were definite pluses.

    Remember, last season, as Mangino and his staff began pulling the program from the depths of the lowlight-filled Terry Allen Era, the Jayhawks won just two games and seemed fortunate to do that. In that rebuilding-from-the-turf-up ride, Kansas fielded one of the worst defenses in the country, had fair to middling special teams play and was essentially weaponless on offense with the notable exceptions of Whittemore and Green.

    You could argue that Kansas has nowhere to go but up this year, and you wouldn't be far off. This Kansas club still is truly an unknown quantity, what with so many junior college transfers and possibly freshmen expected to make impact over the course of the fall.

    Mangino knows how tough a task he, his staff and the team faces trying to bully out of the Big 12 basement. The goal to lift this program to championship-caliber and bowl team remains. But after Saturday night, the forecast for when that might become an actuality is still quite cloudy.

    With a chance for a lot more rain.


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