Preview: Kansas at Iowa State

Thanks to freshman quarterback Todd Reesing's spectacular heroics, bowl dreams are still dancing in the minds of KU players and fans as the Jayhawks head into their pivotal showdown at Iowa State this Saturday in a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Reesing, nicknamed “Sparky” by head coach Mark Mangino, led KU (4-5 overall and 1-4 in Big 12) to a thrilling 20-15 comeback win over Colorado last Saturday at Memorial Stadium with one of the most electrifying debut performances by a true freshman quarterback in school history. Despite playing just the second half, Reesing (5-11, 190) completed 7 of 11 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 90 yards (seven carries) and one TD. He engineered three straight scoring drives within a 9:18 minute span, and wowed the Jayhawk faithful with his passing and rushing prowess.

With KU down 9-0 at halftime and the fans showering the players with boos as they ran off the field, Mangino lifted Reesing’s red shirt and sent him in for the struggling Adam Barmann. It was perhaps the best decision of Mangino’s coaching career, and set the stage for Reesing’s dazzling second-half performance.
Most important, Reesing saved the season and gave his teammates and KU fans reason to believe again.

Now, a week after Mangino was blasted on his Hawk Talk radio show for blowing an 18-point fourth quarter lead to Baylor (KU’s fourth straight loss) and many critics suggesting he would be fired after the season, the Kansas football program has been reenergized with hope and life.

In contrast, the Cyclones (3-6 overall and 0-5 in Big 12) are reeling after losing four straight games, including last Saturday’s matchup versus Kansas State (31-10). Iowa State, which was without leading rusher Stevie Hicks (knee injury) and second-leading receiver Todd Blythe (virus), gave up 31 unanswered points after opening a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

So now there is much at stake when ISU and KU battle at Jack Trice Stadium this Saturday. A Kansas win knocks Iowa State out of the bowl picture and means the Jayhawks would just need to beat K-State or Missouri in their final two games to become bowl eligible. With MU a heavy favorite in the season finale, this game is quite critical for Mangino’s Jayhawks.

But it won’t be easy, despite Iowa State’s struggles this season. Kansas has lost its last four games in Ames and sports a conference road record of just 1-17 since 2002. ISU also has the revenge factor as the Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones in a thrilling overtime victory (24-21) last season.

If KU is to win the game and keep rolling, the Jayhawks must contain and pressure star quarterback Bret Meyer. Kansas’ young and much maligned secondary, which received a huge boost last Saturday from sophomore cornerback Aqib Talib (two interceptions) and converted senior wide receiver Dominic Roux, will be severely tested by Meyer. The dual-threat junior QB is ISU’s all-time career passing leader with 6,825 yards, and ranks second among all active NCAA Division 1-A non-senior quarterbacks with 7,459 yards of career total offense. Meyer is also one of five active quarterbacks to have passed for at least 6,300 yards and rushed for 630 yards.

Mangino said KU’s defense has shown marked improvement from the start of the season, and if the CU game is any indication, the ‘D’ could hold its own against Meyer and company. Although Colorado ranks last in the Big 12 in scoring and total offense, Kansas did not allow a touchdown last Saturday and held the Buffaloes to just 146 passing yards after entering the contest giving up a whopping 295.8 yards per game.

“The defense had a little swagger,” Mangino said. “It’s getting back to the kind of tough, mental edge we play with on defense. I like it.”

Mangino is optimistic about his defense despite losing another player to injury recently. Backup cornerback Blake Bueltel, who didn’t play versus CU, is out indefinitely. ISU, meanwhile, has been decimated by injuries lately, and will miss the injured Hicks and also the team’s third-leading receiver, Jon Davis, who suffered a collapsed lung versus K-State.

While superior KU defense will be critical in Ames, the offense must come to play as well and abuse the Cyclones’ anemic defense. Despite boasting the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 leading tacklers in linebackers Alvin Bowen and Tyrone McKenzie, ISU ranks last in the Big 12 in scoring defense. With KU’s strong, veteran offensive line and the dynamic combination of Reesing and Jon Cornish (one of only seven Division I-A players to rush for at least 1,000 yards this season), Kansas could rack up a load of points this Saturday.

Yes, while Mangino said he’s no longer announcing who his starting QB is each week, you can bet on Reesing getting the nod over red-shirt freshman Kerry Meier, who was injured (shoulder) and didn’t play versus the Buffaloes. Even if Meier is healthy, Kansas has too much momentum now with Reesing.

“He’s a feisty guy,” Cornish said. “He has that inner confidence. He exudes on to us, and we all play better because of it.”

Despite KU's poor road record in recent years, the opening line in Vegas had Kansas a one-point favorite over Iowa State. And the oddsmakers certainly know what they’re talking about. KU is a looser team since Mangino lightened up the mood more in practice after the Baylor loss on Oct. 21, and it certainly paid dividends against the Buffaloes. The Jayhawks now have too much “sense of urgency” to let up. They have too much invested in the program. And perhaps above all, they “want to win so badly” and make a telling statement.

“We want to prove those that doubted us wrong,” said wide receiver Dexton Fields. “We want to go to a bowl game, but more or less, we want to turn it around to show the doubters.” 

Expect KU to win by at least six points and move one game closer to bowl eligibility. The team believes in Mangino and his new mantra:

“The time has come to win, and let’s find a way.”

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