Let the Games Begin

After four nonconference games, Kansas football is ready to roll into Big 12 play this Saturday against Iowa State. KU and ISU will battle at 11:30 a.m. in Ames, Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium. The game will be televised on the Versus Network.

“It’s for keeps in the conference,” KU coach Mark Mangino said.

Indeed, it is. The stakes are much bigger, the competition heats up, the intensity rises, and every game counts. With KU’s mission to win the Big 12 North and advance to the conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Dec. 6, this is basically a must win game for the Jayhawks.

After a bye week following its win over Sam Houston State on Sept. 20, KU went back to work on fundamentals and got extra healing time for injured starters Dexton Fields and Kendrick Harper. Fields, KU’s leading receiver the last two seasons, and the senior cornerback Harper are expected to play after sitting out the last three and two games, respectively. Fields injured his foot in the season opener versus FIU, while Harper suffered a head collision in game two against Louisiana Tech.

Kansas (3-1) will need all its weapons against an improved Iowa State (2-2) team. ISU, which went just 3-9 last season in head coach Gene Chizik’s first year in Ames, is looking to rebound after losing their last two road games to UNLV and Iowa. The Cyclones began the season with homes wins over South Dakota State and Kent State.

Iowa State has won four straight home games, but Kansas has won four of the last five meetings after the Cyclones won three three straight games from 2000-2002.

The No. 16 Jayhawks must contain talented sophomore quarterbacks Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates. Arnaud has started all four games, completing 54 of 83 passes for 643 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also rushed for four scores.  Bates has seen action as well at QB, leading the team in rushing with 166 yards while completing 11 of 24 passes for 137 yards.

ISU’s star receiving target is senior R.J. Sumrall, who’s tied for eighth in Cyclones history with 114 career receptions.

On defense, the Cyclones are dangerous. They lead the Big 12 in turnover margin, forcing 13 turnovers that have resulted in 43 Iowa State points. ISU also boasts one of the premier defensive ends in the conference in Kirk Taylor. He finished second in the Big 12 last season in sacks, and is currently tied for No. 40 in the nation in tackles for loss per game (1.25).

The Cyclones are also strong in the secondary; they rank No. 30 in the nation in pass defense with holding opponents to 176 yards per game. Senior cornerback Chris Singleton paces the team with 119 career tackles and six interceptions.

Mangino has great respect for Iowa State.

“You can see that their program is starting to (do) really good things in the run game and in the pass game,” Mangino said. “Both (Arnaud and Bates) can beat you with their athleticism, so you can’t take them lightly as far as their ability to run the football. They have a lot of veteran guys on the offensive line returning, which should be a strong suit for them.”

Mangino knows the Jayhawks must take care of the ball and not allow Iowa State to force turnovers and get easy scores in a short field, as they’ve done so far this season.

“It is just good fundamental play that creates turnovers, but sometimes it is ineptitude of the opponent. Either way they have done a very good job with that,” Mangino said. “(They) don’t take a lot of chances. They play sound, fundamental football. They like to be in zone coverage as much as they can. They are getting adequate pressure from the defensive front. Those are probably the key reasons they have done well this year."

Mangino said the Cyclones’ defensive players are good athletes with active linebackers and a weapon in Taylor who “is one of the better defensive ends we will play.”

With the bye week, Mangino wanted his team to improve in such areas as the run game. (KU is averaging just 119 rushing yards per game.) He feels the Jayhawks had productive practices heading into Saturday’s showdown.

"I think we did get better at running the football this week,” Mangino said. “I also think we got better at blocking. We had a good week of fundamentals with offensive line play and with the tight ends. I feel good about our backs. I feel that they have a better understanding of what is going on. I think we have cleaned some things up here and there to help them out, but more than anything, the offensive line has improved.”

Mangino also expects his linebackers to improve. Led by talented seniors Joe Mortenson, James Holt and Mike Rivera, the linebacking corps was expected to be a strong suit this season. However, they’ve struggled some and Rivera didn’t start the last game versus Sam Houston State. He had started every game since his sophomore season, and is the team’s career leading tackler.

“Mike understands what the challenges are. And I expect him to respond in a positive manner,” Mangino said.
"There is no question that we can play better at that (linebacking) position,” Mangino added. “We can run downhill a lot better. We can do a lot better in our zone reads and pass defense. Nobody understands better than they do that they can play better.”

KU will surely be buoyed with the return of Fields and Harper. The senior Fields strengthens a strong receiving corps, while Harper will help shore up the Jayhawk secondary. Fields tied a school record with 11 receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns in KU’s 45-7 victory over the Cyclones last season.

"Obviously since I haven't been playing I can't try to come back in and try to take over the offense,” Fields said. “I am just going to try and get myself acclimated on what we are doing and fitting back into the schemes. I will have a little gimp in my step from my injury, but I don't feel rusty. I am pretty sure that my timing is going to be OK.”

After the bye week, KU is refreshed and eager to start conference play.

“It gives you an opportunity to reflect back on what you have done and really learn from the mistakes you have made in the first four games and grow on the things that you have done well,” junior quarterback Todd Reesing said. “We took the bye week and made the best of it, had some good practices, learned a lot and I think it will make us better and get us rested up for this first game (of the Big 12 season).”

With the nonconference games in the history books, the real season begins on Saturday.

"The games count now and it is going to be fun,” junior running back Angus Quigley said. “We are trying to push ourselves. You always want to go into conference play playing your best.”

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