Gameday! KU Hosts FIU Today

The Kansas Jayhawks open the 2008 football season today, hosting a game with Florida International in Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is 6 p.m., CT. A preview iniside...

Kansas football made history last year with the best season in school history. KU went 12-1 and beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Seven months later, the Jayhawks kick off the 2008 season against Florida International on Saturday at 6 p.m. (CST) at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas can make history again this year by being the first team in Jayhawk annals to earn back-to-back bowl berths. Of course, KU wants more, namely a Big 12 title and national championship.

But as last year’s team demonstrated so brilliantly, you can’t look ahead. So KU’s only concern now is beating FIU (1-11 last season) for the second straight year. KU stampeded the Golden Panthers, 55-3, last Sept. 22 in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks will be facing a team which returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense. While Florida International recorded just one victory last year, Jayhawk coach Mark Mangino and his players aren’t taking the Golden Panthers lightly.

“They are well-coached and well-organized,” Mangino said. “They have some talented players that are veterans. We are looking forward to playing them. We think they are going to be a much different team than they were a year ago in terms of growth and maturity. They have a new offensive coordinator who will spread the field and get the ball around pretty good. On defense they are talented. They have some players who can play for anybody.”

Those players include “smart and speedy” cornerback Anthony Gator, safety Jeremiah Wright, massive defensive tackles Jarvis Penerton and Jonal Murrell, and junior linebacker Scott Bryant, who led the Golden Panthers with 91 tackles last season.

Offensively, FIU will start either junior Paul McCall or sophomore Wayne Younger at quarterback. Both players were still battling for the starting spot at press time. Mangino and his staff will prepare his players for both, a running quarterback in Younger who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman and set school records for rushing yards by a quarterback.

McCall, though, led FIU to its only win of the season with 227 passing yards and three touchdowns in a  38-19 victory over North Texas. His 228 yards were the most by a FIU QB in his first career start.

Mangino said “we don’t know completely (what FIU) might do on offense since we haven’t seen their offense since they made a change in coordinators.”

New offensive coordinator Bill Legg came to Florida International this year after serving as co-offensive coordinator at Purdue. Mangino is familiar with Legg’s background so he “knows to a degree” how FIU will attack on Saturday.

“(FIU) is going to spread the field and they are going to be a lot like Purdue in a lot of ways,” Mangino said. “They are going to try and attack the field horizontally once you tighten up your coverage. They are going to run the ball. They like to run the zone play and dig you out inside with good combo blocks and a vertical push.”

While Mangino admits he loves game days since it’s “kind of the reward for 365 days of work,” he admits the season opener “is always the one which makes me most nervous” since he doesn’t quite know his team will react.

But make no mistake, Mangino is looking forward to the challenge and “competing with another team” after four hard weeks of practice.

“We’re excited to get back on the game field and play in front of our fans,” Mangino said.

These Jayhawks fans welcome back a KU team with nine returning defensive starters and six offensive starters. Some new faces in the projected starting lineup include running back Jake Sharp (he started one game last season while splitting time with Brandon McAnderson), tight tend Bradley Dedeaux, wide receivers Kerry Meier and Jonathan Wilson, left tackle Jeff Spikes, right tackle Jeremiah Hatch, defensive tackle Richard Johnson, and left cornerback Kendrick Harper (three starts in 2007).

Of course, junior Todd Reesing is back to lead the offense this season. Reesing, who set 21 school records last season, expects the offense to be even better this year. That would be huge considering KU set school records for total yards per game, passing yards per game, and points per game (42.77, which was second in the nation) last season.

“I think we have the ability to be a lot more explosive,” Reesing said. “That starts in the run game. With Jocques [Crawford, junior college transfer] and Jake’s speed they have the ability to break some long runs. Brandon, last year, if he had a little more speed I think he would have taken some of those 25-yard runs about 60 yards. Hopefully we can get some more explosiveness there. At receiver we have got a lot of guys with size and speed. It should be fun to watch that balanced attack.”

Senior linebackers Mike Rivera, Joe Mortenson and James Holt help lead KU’s defense, which wasn’t too shabby itself last season. KU ranked fourth in the NCAA in scoring defense (16.38), eighth in rushing defense (94.77) and 12th in total defense (317.31).

Rivera hopes the defense continues to roll in the season opener. He has great respect for FIU.

“They have a lot of really good athletes on their team,” Rivera said. “Their record doesn’t really show it from last year, but this year they are going to be a lot more improved, they are bringing back a lot of good personnel. They are going to be a much better team and much more competitive.”

Junior safety Justin Thornton is ready to have some fun on Saturday.

“It is definitely exciting,” he said. ”We are all out here working on the same goal and working hard. We have put in long days during two-a-days at camp and we have some guys beat up, but this is the week to get our feet back beneath us and we’ll be ready to go.”

The road to another historic season begins on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Rivera is definitely hyped. The team’s most competitive player (as voted on by his teammates) has been waiting seven months to make some bone-crushing hits on game day. And he’s tired of tackling his teammates in practice this past month.

“We have been banging on each other for about 21 days now, working hard, preparing, and getting ready for this first game,” Rivera said on Tuesday.

“We can’t wait to get out there.”

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