The Jayhawks, led by quarterback Montell Cozart, offer a prototypical Big 12 style that lacks the talent of some other programs. But with Cozart now progressing through reads more effectively and again healthy after a string of injuries, Kansas' offense has started to show headway. KU scored 23 and 20 points against Oklahoma State and TCU, respectively, and was able to control the ball against Oklahoma early, which allowed the team to remain in the game in what head coach David Beaty called its best first quarter of the season.
While that might not read like much, it's a series of small steps which will lead Kansas back to respectability, and the Jayhawks can take another against West Virginia on Saturday. The Mountaineers rank second in the Big 12 in scoring defense at 20.6 points per game - just behind Baylor's 19.7 average - and are fourth in both rush and pass defense. WVU has totaled seven interceptions this season, and might well be tempted to go for more against a team that has amassed a whopping 16, the most at the FBS level this season. Eight of those have been thrown by Cozart, who has had a tendency to force throws into coverage especially with KU trailing.
"Kansas, unfortunately on offense they’ve turned the ball over a lot," West Virginia safeties coach Matt Caponi said. "It’s hurt them in some games, so we just have to preach to the guys when the opportunity comes to get some turnovers we have to take advantage of it.
Cozart is completing 60.5 percent of his passes, but averaging just 158 throwing yards per game. His yardage has come in chunks, with Kansas hitting for passes of 68 and 67 yards versus OSU and TCU, and the Jayhawks won't hesitate to challenge vertically wide wideout LaQuivonte Gonzalez. The transfer from Texas A&M had a 99-yard kickoff return against Ohio, both the 67- and 68-yard pass receptions, and a pair of other 30-plus yard plays, and was named a prep second-team All-American by USA Today out of Ceder Hill High in Texas. If KU can shake him loose, and Cozart has the time, the Jayhawks have proven adequate at the big play.
And that's the balance that must be struck by both sides. West Virginia wants to force turnovers, without changing how it plays defense to do such. The Mountaineers' focus is to remain within the 3-3-5 scheme and simply allow execution to carry it, despite temptation toward jumping routes or trying to do too much against an overmatched foe. Kansas, meanwhile, understands its struggles in piecing together prolonged drives and has become impatient at times, especially when behind. That has led to pushing the ball deep against both numerical and alignment disadvantages, which has led to the 16 interceptions. Which team breaks stride first will have an impact on how the game develops, from both a physical and psychological perspective.
"We stress turnovers, no matter who we are playing," Caponi said. "You see on film that they’ll put the ball on the ground or put the ball in the air and we have to regroup. We weren’t able to get turnovers (versus Oklahoma State), so we have to just keep playing hard. Hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to catch some interceptions or knock the ball loose a few times, but that’s something that we always stress no matter who we are playing.
"You can see on film, the thing that will help us is being able to disguise our coverages and hold it till the last second. I think if we can give them certain looks and do some things post snap, it will be able to confuse their quarterbacks and hopefully they’ll put the ball in the air. We have to take advantage of reading their eyes, breaking on the ball, collision, routes and getting to our landmarks and stuff. You’ll see, we’ll pressure and do some things and just kind of emphasize attacking the football and getting as many hats as we can on the ball and trying to dig that thing out."