CU at KU: The Matchups

Early on in Mark Mangino's career at Kansas, the toughest team for the Jayhawks to beat in the North wasn't the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

It wasn’t the Kansas State Wildcats, and it certainly wasn’t the Missouri Tigers.

No, the North team that gave Mangino the most fits was Colorado, which defeated Mangino in each of his first four years. Even when Mangino finally got over the hump, it wasn’t easy. Kansas needed a brilliant second-half performance from Todd Reesing to seal the deal in 2006 as the Jayhawks snuck away with a 20-15 victory. Then, last year, Kansas held off a late charge in Boulder to capture the victory.

This year, it’s tough to get a gauge on the Buffaloes, who have played a brutal schedule already and are missing several key players to injury. Still, there’s enough firepower left on both sides of the ball to give the Jayhawks trouble … as usual.

Here are this week’s matchups to watch:

1)    Kansas’s interior offensive line versus George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas, defensive tackles

If Hypolite isn’t the best defensive tackle in the Big 12, he’s in the elite group. The 6-foot-1, 290 pounder is quick off the ball and gives opposing offensive lines fits in both the run and the passing game. His presence opens up plays for Colorado’s other linemen, including Nicolas, a rough nose tackle. Kansas’s interior line has struggled this year when compared to last year, and they’ll face arguably their biggest challenge to date on Saturday. If they can push Hypolite and Nicolas out and provide holes for the run game, Kansas will have a chance to control the game physically, and likely, control the scoreboard. But if Colorado can force Kansas into a pass-only situation, and if they can get pressure up the middle, it could lead to a slow start like the one that nearly doomed the Jayhawks last week in Ames.


2)    Kendrick Harper and Chris Harris versus Josh Smith, wide receiver

Colorado’s offense has been bogged down over the first part of the season, scoring less than 25 points per game. Smith represents Colorado’s biggest big-play threat. The speedy receiver has three plays over 20 yards, a punt return for 51 yards and a kickoff return for a touchdown. He also averages about a carry per game, and the Buffaloes might try to see if they can get him on the edge with a reverse. His speed could present problems the way R.J. Sumrall’s speed did last week, when Kansas cornerbacks were so paranoid about getting beat deep that they gave up easy seven- to 10-yard passes. Both Harris and Harper have shown that they have some ability at the position, but the speedy Smith will represent a challenge. Taking Smith out of the game would mean that Colorado wouldn’t have much big-play ability, and with the way CU’s offense has gone this year, that could be the difference in the game.

3)    Kansas defensive line versus Colorado offensive line

Colorado’s offensive line is more banged up than an old Pinto. The Buffs are missing two starters and another lineman, all of whom are out for the year. Beyond that, they’ve lost a couple players to academic issues. What it leads to is an offensive line with one senior, one junior, one sophomore and two freshman, and an increased likelihood of moving over a defensive tackle for immediate depth. The Buffaloes gave up three sacks to the Longhorns last week, but perhaps more importantly, they gave up pressure on nearly every play. That could be the elixir needed for a Kansas defensive line that hasn’t gotten to the quarterback consistently. Texas has better horses up front, but that’s not to say that Richard Johnson Jr. and Jake Laptad won’t be able to get a much better push than they have been getting.

4)     Mike Rivera versus Rodney Stewart, running back

Rivera pulled a Nuke LaLouche last weekend when he “announced his presence with authority.” It was a major step forward for Rivera, who had been chastised by some as having a subpar senior year. All he did last week was come in and provide serious punch to a defense that desperately needed it. Make no mistake – last week’s game wasn’t won when Kansas came out in the second half. It was won when a defense, led by Rivera’s energy, began getting stops and making big plays in the first half. That turned the team’s confidence around more than anything. This week, Rivera will have to be his old sideline-to-sideline self in that he’ll have Stewart, a lightning quick back who has already drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles, to chase down. Stewart has put up two 100-yard games already in his true freshman season, and he uses his 4.35 speed to stretch the field. If Rivera can chase him down, or keep him from putting up big plays, Colorado might not have any more offensive options to stand on.

5)    Kansas receivers versus Cha’pelle Brown, cornerback

You can’t teach height. But in Kansas’s case, you can recruit plenty of it. The Jayhawks boast three 6-foot-3 starting receivers. The “small” starter, Dexton Fields, is between 5-11 and 6-0 and weighs more than 200 pounds. That’s bad news for Brown (5-7), who has been a playmaker in the Buffaloes secondary this season. The height difference may be even more critical this week in that free safety Ryan Walters is fighting off an injury and likely won’t be 100 percent. That means Brown might not get the help over the top that he needs to deal with Kansas’s stable of big receivers who can jump.

While those might be the most important matchups for Kansas, there’s another question – what happens when a stoppable force meets a movable object – that should be answered Saturday. Kansas is the nation’s worst team at returning kicks, and has provided preseason All-Big 12 returner Marcus Herford with no space to run. On the flip side, Colorado’s kick coverage unit is the worst in the country. This could be the opportunity one of those units needs to build some confidence heading later into the season.

In terms of the overall game, Kansas should win this one fairly comfortably. You would like to think that the Iowa State game served as a wakeup call for what can happen when you come out flat, and Colorado, with its host of injuries and general lack of offense, seems to present a fairly safe opportunity to put together a strong 60 minutes.
 
Still, no North team has played Kansas as well as Colorado under Mangino’s tenure, so don’t be surprised if this one is close.

Kansas 31
Colorado 17

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