Kansas aims for more national credibility

September, 11, 2008
9/11/08
10:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

 
 Marc Serota/Getty Images
 Kansas QB Todd Reesing is second in the nation in total offense.

During its last trip to Florida, Kansas grabbed a chunk of national credibility with an impressive victory in the Orange Bowl.

Less than nine months later, the Jayhawks are back in the Sunshine State looking for more.

The Jayhawks will be facing South Florida in an early battle of top 20 teams. It will be a litmus test for both programs, but especially for a Kansas team that has received unprecedented publicity earlier this season.

"I think this is a good measuring stick, to some degree," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "But I don't think it's a game where, if we win, we feel like we're going to win all the rest, and if we lose, we're going to have a bad season."

This year's game is a huge transformation from the first game of the series in 2006. Kansas eked out a narrow 13-7 victory that featured little pregame acclaim.

"I remember playing them two years ago and it meant nothing to the mass media," Kansas safety Darrell Stuckey said. "I was hearing from fans thinking that we should beat those guys because they hadn't heard much about them. They were a very good team then and they've grown a lot since then. Now, they are a phenomenal team."

After last season, the perception of both programs has been transformed. Both teams were briefly ranked No. 2 in the nation last season. The Jayhawks won their bowl game, beating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl for the first program's first victory in a BCS bowl game. USF started 6-0 before losing three straight games that knocked them out of the Big East title hunt.

"It's matchup of a couple of similar programs," Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing said. "They popped up on the scene much like we did last year. They got high in the ratings and made a lot of headway with some guys that weren't highly recruited. It's something that's been the same for both of us."

Despite outscoring opponents by a combined margin of 69-10 in its first two games, the Jayhawks will enter Friday's game with several lingering questions. Kansas has struggled running the ball so far, averaging 3.7 yards per carry. It's down more than a yard per carry from last year's average.

Some of the problems have been caused by breaking in new starting tackles Jeff Spikes and Jeremiah Hatch into the lineup after losing All-American Anthony Collins and four-year starter Cesar Rodriguez from last season.

And the Jayhawks have been slow to fill the contribution of running back Brandon McAnderson, who rushed for 1,125 yards last season. The biggest disappointment has been the play of junior-college transfer Jocques Crawford, who brashly predicted before the season that he would like to run for 2,000 yards. After the first two games, Crawford is still 1,951 yards from his stated goal.

Third-stringer Angus Quigley has emerged as the most consistent Kansas running threat, piling up 131 yards. Crawford and Jake Sharp, the most experienced Kansas back, have both been inconsistent as the Jayhawks rank 10th in the Big 12 with an average of 127 rushing yards per game.

Despite the running game struggles, Mangino has been pleased in how Reesing has moved the Jayhawks through the air. He leads the nation in pass completions, is second in total offense, seventh passing yards and is eighth in passing efficiency after the first two games of the season.

"Sure, we haven't run the ball as effectively as I'd like for us to," Mangino said. "But on the other hand, we've been throwing the ball so well. We're facing a situation where it's 'Are we being patient enough for the running game?' And the second question is, 'Do we need to be patient enough for the run game?' As long as the run game can complement the passing game a little bit, we feel good about it."

Some are still questioning the Jayhawks and their national credentials. The South Florida game starts a punishing stretch of their schedule which will also include games with South Division powers Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Kansas played none of those teams during last season's 12-1 campaign.

"This game will be an opportunity for us to establish ourselves in the national mindset," Stuckey said. "This will define us as a team and show that we weren't a one-year wonder. It's an opportunity to show we really deserve to be considered as a strong contender."

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