Heading into last week, Kansas was the mystery team.
Sure, the Jayhawks showed few weaknesses against a schedule that included St. Mary’s School for the Blind, but nobody knew how they would respond to a real, Big 12 challenge on the road, a rivalry game against a Kansas State team that supposedly had enough speed to make the Jayhawks’ heads spin.
Oh, what a difference a week makes.
The Jayhawks discovered plenty against the Wildcats. First, Aqib Talib is human, but he’s still awfully good. Kansas also found out that Brandon McAnderson was a legitimate Big 12 running back and that receivers Dexton Fields and Dezmon Briscoe give the Jayhawks matchups to exploit against linebackers and safeties.
Defensively, Kansas found out that Chris Harris is still all right, and that the difference between last year’s pass defense and this year’s pass defense may be defined by improvements at the safety positions. And that pass rush, which was streaky against the four non-conference opponents, was still streaky against the Wildcats, but showed enough in the fourth quarter for optimism.
Still, this week is a different week. In comes Baylor with a vaunted passing attack and an offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack in 87 consecutive passing plays. The Bears used an aerial blitzkrieg to shock the Jayhawks 38-35 last year in Waco, so I don’t think Kansas will overlook them.
Here are the matchups for this week:
Szymanski is already poised to set several Baylor records this season if he continues his torrid pace. The sophomore has thrown for 400 yards in three separate games this year, including against Colorado last week. Szymanski is tall at 6-foot-4, but with any short passing offense, most of the throws are coming down out of his hand, not lobbing up. The Baylor offensive line’s ability in pass protection and Szymanski’s quick trigger means the defensive ends will have to keep in his throwing lanes and get their hands up, which could lead to tipped passes, and, as happened last week against Kansas State, interceptions. Szymanski has already thrown nine on the year, and is completing less than 54 percent of his passes, a horrid number for the gunman in a short-passing scheme. Blocking his passing lanes only helps the defense’s cause. The ends will also have to keep contain as Szymanski, while not a burner, is a good enough athlete to hurt you if you let him out of the pocket.
One of the major differences between the spread attack Baylor runs, and, well, almost everybody else, is the size of the Bears’ slot receivers. Missouri runs a similar tactic with tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, but they bring more athleticism to the fold. Akers (6-5 223) and Taylor (6-3 231) are wide bodies that are tough to get around on short routes. It has suited Akers well in the red zone — he leads the Bears with four touchdown catches, while both he and Taylor are among the team’s top receivers. Holt needs to be physical and show off the cover skills that make him Kansas’s third linebacker. Meanwhile, Resby will need to man up on one, or both of the players at times, and may need to serve as an enforcer to clear the middle of the field.
3) Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, cornerbacks, versus David Gettis, wide receiver
Gettis (6-4 213) is a legit Big 12 wideout with great size and sprinter’s speed. Even more, Gettis seems to be getting “it.” He’s just a sophomore, and he’s following an apprenticeship behind Dominique “Ziggy” Ziegler and Trent Shelton, two very good wide receivers, so it’s not like he has underachieved to this point. But the light has come on the last two weeks, with Gettis catching 10 balls for 187 yards during that time period. The sprinter on Baylor’s track team still has yet to catch a touchdown, but if you blink an eye, he has the speed to take it the distance. Talib seemed almost shocked last week by Jordy Nelson’s speed, but Nelson didn’t get deep again in the game. It’s unlikely Talib will be surprised by Gettis. Now Harris, on the other hand, could be different, though Harris plays well with a cushion, and does a nice job of keeping plays in front of him. If the game becomes a track meet, Gettis is one player Baylor needs on his game to keep pace.
4) Brandon McAnderson, running back, versus Joe Pawelek, linebacker
Baylor employs a 4-2-5, meaning the Bears put more speed on the field, but are missing a linebacker. McAnderson is bigger than both linebackers the Bears play, and it could be his pounding between the tackles that opens up the passing game and tires out the defense. Baylor hasn’t been very good against the run, and has struggled against bigger running backs — Texas A&M’s Jorvorskie Lane ran for 123 yards and a score against the Bears. Perhaps most importantly, his downhill running wore down the Bears and propelled A&M to 352 yards rushing. Pawelek was a Freshman All American last year, and is a great player. He’ll need to stop McAnderson from gaining momentum and making it into the undersized secondary or it could be a long day.
Okay, so I’ve listed Holt twice. So sue me. Mortensen will likely spend his time either causing havoc on the blitz or keeping track of Szymanski, so that means both Rivera and Holt will have to watch for Whitaker and Finley out of the backfield. Neither is all that big, but both can be shifty in the open field, and Holt struggled a little bit when matched up with Kansas State’s running backs. Both Whitaker and Finley will see the ball on pass plays — Whitaker is even Baylor’s leading receiver, and caught 11 passes for 166 yards against Colorado. Stopping these two takes away from Szymanski’s safety net and forces him to look further downfield when in trouble. When that’s the case, you have to count that play as a Kansas victory.
Perhaps the biggest key for the Jayhawks will be simply to not come out flat. Kansas is bigger, faster and more talented, but, as with just about any Big 12 team, Baylor has the horses to hurt Kansas if the Jayhawks come out flat.
Having said that, Kansas Coach Mark Mangino’s teams seldom enter a game not ready to play, and they are riding the confidence that comes with a five game winning streak and an undefeated record. The Jayhawks will start off a little slowly, as they have done in each game this year, but will find a groove with the help of Jake Sharp and McAnderson powering the running game. After that, things open up and quarterback Todd Reesing has another big game, utilizing Marcus Henry, Dexton Fields and Dezmon Briscoe down the field.
Baylor just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with this one, and an interception or two could make the game uglier than it should be.