The confidence was swelling around the Kansas football program this week after the new starting quarterback completed just 54 percent of his passes and threw for 288 yards. Receivers were smiling. The new quarterback was talking about finishing better. The vibe around the Anderson Family Football Complex was trending in a positive direction.
Perhaps that says something about KU, which lost 27-20 to Oklahoma State last week after a special-teams breakdown in the second half. But after years of anemic passing numbers, the loss felt like a fresh start. After so many seasons of quarterback questions, junior Michael Cummings looked like a serviceable option in his first start of the season.
“Hopefully,” KU interim coach Clint Bowen said, “he truly can take control of that offense.”
Cummings, who replaced sophomore starter Montell Cozart, completed just 20 of 37 pass attempts in the loss to Oklahoma State. But his overall decision-making and poise appeared to invigorate a stale offense. The Jayhawks sustained drives, outgained Oklahoma State by more than 100 yards and finished with their highest point total of the season against a power-five school.
Now Cummings will try to back up the performance with another solid effort when Kansas, 2-4, travels to Texas Tech, 2-4, for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium.
“It was close last week, but we came up short,” Cummings said. “That was the end: We came up short. We saw how close we were to getting the job done. So now we got to work so much harder.”
For Cummings, the opportunity now exists to secure the starting quarterback job and take the reins for the rest of the season. But the task will require consistency. In general terms, that means being more accurate in certain areas of the passing game. In more specific terms, offensive coordinator John Reagan says, that means tightening up some aspects of the quarterback run game.
“You have to be decisive,” Reagan said. “You have to have knowledge and a confidence that allows you to do that. I thought Mike did a great job.”
After three straight losses to begin the Big 12 season, the Jayhawks also face a Texas Tech team that — at least on paper — appears to be the most beatable Big 12 team on the schedule to date. The Red Raiders have lost four games in a row and rank last in the conference in total defense. For Cummings, a victory could keep the confidence swelling. For Bowen, just three weeks into his interim audition, a win could mean even more.
“We are a team in progress,” Bowen said. “I believe if you come to our practices, we’re still not urgent enough. But our kids are understanding the importance of urgency more. It has to continue to improve.”
Kansas at Texas Tech
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Jones AT&T Stadium, Lubbock, Texas
TV: Fox Sports KC
Other story lines
▪ THE ROAD LOSING STREAK: At this point, the Jayhawks’ 26-game road losing streak has been discussed so much, it barely feels worth mentioning. But just a gentle reminder as Kansas heads to Texas Tech. If the Jayhawks can’t snap the streak on Saturday, the final three road games will come against Baylor, Oklahoma and K-State.
▪ SPECIAL TEAMS PROBLEMS: For the last two weeks, the Jayhawks have given up a kickoff return for touchdown on special teams. Both times, the return has come in the second half. For a team like Kansas, whose margin of error is so small, the special-teams mistakes become magnified. Can KU improve its kickoff and punt coverage? Will Clint Bowen resort to using the high and short “sky kicks” to neutralize the return game?
▪ JAYHAWKS’ RUNNING GAME: Texas Tech has the worst rushing defense in the Big 12. Kansas is coming off a game in which it managed just 91 rushing yards on 41 carries (2.2 yards per carry). For Kansas, which is averaging just 15.8 points per game, the ground game must be more productive. To compete in the Big 12, the Jayhawks must control the clock and keep its talented defense rested into the second half.