Kansas' offense may look statistically bad, and it has been for most of the year. Once quarterback Jason Swanson arrived, the team added a passing threat and posed a more balanced attack for the rest of the season, winning three of the Jayhawks' final four games, with the only loss coming from Texas. Against Missouri, Kansas rang up more than 200 rushing yards with the Tigers focused on the pass. Kansas then shredded Nebraska both on the ground and through the air in a 40-15 victory, before befuddling Iowa State with more than 250 yards through the air. Clark Green and Jon Cornish give the Jayhawks a sort of thunder-and-lightning potential, and they run behind an offensive line that has improved vastly throughout the year.
Meanwhile, Houston's defensive unit has had just as many problems, allowing 315 rushing yards in a loss to Memphis, while getting drilled for more than 300 yards through the air in losses to Oregon and UTEP. The front seven is unspectacular at best, and the secondary has been one of the team's weak spots all season.
This is the matchup between Kansas' and Houston's weakest units, and one that could wind up deciding the game. Here's saying that the Cougars, who allowed 208 rushing yards per game in their five losses, won't be able to slow down Kansas' ground game, which will also help take the pressure off Swanson in the play-action game. That's bad news for a secondary that's gotten toasted regularly to the tune of 210 yards per game over 11 games.
When Houston has the ball, Advantage — Kansas
What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Kansas and Houston fans will find out when the Cougars' vaunted offense matches up against Kansas' senior-laden defense.
The Cougars utilize a variety of sets to try and confuse the defense, and they do it well, putting up a Conference USA best 456 yards per game. The Cougars do it with balance, ranking third in CUSA in rushing and third in passing. Leading the team is Kevin Kolb, one of the nation's most exciting players from the quarterback position. He's been running the same offense since high school, and he completed 62 percent of his passes for more than 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also is prone to make mistakes, as his 12 interceptions in 11 games will attest. He's aided by 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Gilbert, who averages 6.4 yards per pop. When you add in speedy, athletic receivers Vincent Marshall and Donnie Avery, you get a unit that's capable of scoring early and often. The only downside for the unit is the offensive line, which allowed Kolb to get sacked 27 times.
That offense will face a stingy defense that going into the Texas game was rated the number one defense in the nation against the run. On a group that is far from short of playmakers, senior linebackers Nick Reid, Kevin Kane and Banks Floodman shine the brightest. Charlton Keith and Brandon Perkins are pass rushers extraordinaire, while the Jermial Ashley and James McClinton face constant double-teams because of their strength and quickness. The biggest weak spot is the secondary, where the team has struggled against teams that throw well downfield. The emergence of Aqib Talib at cornerback has allowed Charles Gordon to focus on offense, but the safeties are pure average.
This is the most intriguing matchup of the bowl game. If Kansas can pressure Kolb, he won't have time to look downfield against the secondary. On the flip side, if Kolb gets more than four seconds, he has the weapons to pick apart Kansas' defensive backfield. Watch for Keith and Ashley, first-and second-team All-Big 12 players, to give the offensive line a handful and use their length and quickness to force Kolb into some mistakes. Houston may move the ball, but they'll have a hard time getting the time to do it in chunks.
Kansas will win if:
The Jayhawks are able to put pressure on Kolb and move Houston around with the running game on offense. Kansas has the tools to do both, it's just a question of execution. The offensive line improved drastically with the addition of Ryan Cantrell at midseason, and the running backs are good enough to have a big day. However, that will be negated if …
Houston will win if:
The Cougars strike early. The easiest way to take a team away from its running game is to build a lead. If the Cougars do get up early, they can force Kansas to become one-dimensional, where Swanson has shown he will make mistakes. If Houston holds on to the ball for extended periods of time, that could also tire out the defense, leaving them incapable of chasing the Cougar athletes all over the field.
This should be a tough game, at least early. The advantages on either side of the ball aren't huge either way, but Kansas does have the advantage. Kansas faced a team with a similar schtick last year in Toledo and massacred what wound up being a pretty decent team. The Jayhawks have the athletes and a senior defense that is way past falling for trickery. If you can't fool somebody, you'd better have better athletes. Houston doesn't have that luxury.
If Kansas wasn't ready for the bowl game before, the scuffle ensured that they would be Friday. Houston's offense will pose a challenge, but Reid, Kane and Floodman will take it personally to snuff out one more team. FINAL SCORE: Kansas 35, Houston 17