The Wildcats dropped an overtime game to TCU to start off the season before falling to Arizona State in a close one last week. Northwestern's field is also grass, which could play into the Wildcats' favor - the Jayhawks typically don't play well away from the rug-like Memorial Stadium, especially when playing on natural grass, which may help to neutralize the Jayhawks' superior speed. Northwestern in general is not a fast team, so expect grass up to the ankles as they try to take advantage of bruising line play. Any way you spell it, this could be a major test for Kansas.
Offensive Advantage: Northwestern
The Wildcats get the advantage here just based on consistency. Kansas struggled offensively against Tulsa before exploding last week in a rout of Toledo. Adam Barmann threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns while hitting on 20-24 passes when it mattered...in the first half. John Randle provided an explosive burst to the offense, rushing for 104 yards and taking a screen pass 55 yards to the house. He finished with 183 total yards. While the overweight Clark Green has not been totally abandoned, he will have to pull something special to unseat Randle as the team's premier back. Mark Simmons and Brandon Rideau each caught six passes last week and Gary Heaggans added two catches for 45 yards and another touchdown. Simmons has a natural knack for getting open, and Lyonel Anderson was a weapon last week from the tight end position.
The offensive line, led by buffet-busters Joe Vaughn and Bob Whittaker opened up huge holes for Randle to run through and protected Barmann in the pocket. They will be tested by a big Northwestern defensive line.
Northwestern's offensive performance hasn't been its problem as the team averages 550 yards per game. The team is led by quarterback Brett Basanez, who appears to have broken last season's slump. Basanez is averaging 371 yards passing per game, while completing 60 percent of his passes. He also is quick enough to escape the pocket and cause some chaos downfield. Noah Herron is the power back. Powerful, but lacking breakaway speed, Herron averages 100 yards rushing per game and 4.4 yards per carry. He also has three touchdowns. Terrell Jordan is quicker than Herron and is used as a nice change of pace. The group of wide receivers are big, physical possession guys other than 5-foot-8 inch Jonathan Fields. Both Fields and Mark Philmore average over 100 yards per game, with 117 and 111 yards per game respectively. Fields, with blazing speed, averages 18 yards per catch and is the main deep threat. Ashton Aikens and Shaun Herbert also see their fair share of passes.
The offensive line is massive, with only the center weighing less than 310 pounds. Offensive tackle Zach Strief, 6-7 335, is the star. This team will come out and pound away at defensive lines with the 230 pound Herron, then Basanez will take advantage downfield.
Defensive Advantage: Kansas
Northwestern's defense gives up an average of 39 points and 478 yards per game. The defensive line is powerful, with defensive end Loren Howard, the star player being the smallest at 280 pounds. Kansas fans might remember Howard, the former Big 10 Freshman of the year, from his forced fumble on Bill Whittemore on the last play of last season's game. The linebackers are also physical, but lack true speed. Tim McGarigle leads the team with 19 tackles and a sack in two games. The secondary has struggled this season, allowing an average of 330 passing yards per game and an average completion of 16.9 yards. The most active member of the secondary is Dominique Price, who has nine tackles, a recovered fumble and an interception.
The defense is a step on the slow side, which was exposed in the team's losses. Kansas should be able to spread the Wildcats out and use some short passes that could lead to bigger gains.
Kansas' defense has been the strength of the team this season, allowing 17 points in two games and harassing the quarterback. The super-improved defensive lines and secondary are the main reasons for the improvement. Jermail Ashley has two sacks, a fumble recovery and two passes knocked down in the young season. The defensive tackles have also stepped up, thanks to a healthy Travis Watkins and a reinvigorated Tim Allen.
The line will have to be tough as they will be vastly undersized against the Northwestern line. David McMillian may struggle to get to Basanez past Strief. The linebackers have rotated and all four are having strong seasons. Nick Reid leads the team in tackles, while Kevin Kane has made several big plays, Gabe Toomey has forced a fumble and Banks Floodman has been solid. The rotation will help against Northwestern, who tired out the Jayhawks in last season's game. Theo Baines and Charles Gordon have been huge in the secondary, while Tony Stubbs and Rodney Harris have quietly brought stability to the safety positions. Kansas' defense has been opportunistic this season, forcing eight turnovers in just two games.
Special Teams: Kansas
Well, the Jayhawks found their extra point guy. Scott Webb made a school record nine PAT kicks last week. Johnny Beck missed a long field goal, but he has the leg to get it done. In week one, Greg Heaggans had a big return, and last week was Gordon's turn. All Chris Tyrell has done is become yet another weapon in the Jayhawks' defensive arsenal.
Northwestern's special teams are average at best. The coverage is average, and Brian Huffman struggles as both the kicker and the punter. As the kicker, Huffman is 1-6 in field goals, including 0-4 inside the 40-yard range. As a punter, he averages 38 yards per punt. Derell Jenkins and Jeff Backes are the kick returners, while Philmore is the punt returner, with less than spectacular results.
The X-Factors: PUSH
Kansas traditionally struggles on a grass field, and Northwestern's game plan will attempt to take advantage by playing physically and trying to knock Kansas off the ball. Kansas also usually struggles on the road, and Northwestern is a dangerous team.
But this Jayhawks team is confident, cocky, and they are playing with a giant, media-aided chip on their shoulders. If the Jayhawks can get up early, they may have the Wildcats by the tail. Northwestern has yet to score a first quarter point and has been outscored by 24 points in the first half of the two games. Northwestern has outscored its opponents by 21 in the third quarter, so watch for a raring Wildcats team after halftime. If Kansas plays like it did against Tulsa, they will be in trouble. But if the ‘Hawks can jump up immediately like they did against Toledo, the team should be 3-0 heading into next week's conference opener against Texas Tech. This one win could go a long way as far as confidence is concerned.