Late on Saturday night, Montell Cozart labored across the edges of freshly laid turf, toward the front rows of the student section at Memorial Stadium. A few hundred fans remained, enjoying the afterglow of Kansas’ 34-28 victory over Southeast Missouri State in the season opener at Memorial Stadium.
But as the Jayhawks pushed together to sing the KU alma mater, Cozart could only enjoy so much about the moment. It was a start, he thought, a jumping off point for his young career as a quarterback and the Jayhawks’ ever-evolving rebuilding project.
But it was not perfect. Far from perfect.
“We’re going to keep chopping wood,” Cozart said.
For Cozart, much of the night was still a blur. There was a wildly explosive start, a 24-0 lead after one quarter, a second-half letdown and a night of learning against a seemingly average directional school from the Football Champion Subdivision.
“Sometimes when you have success, you get shocked, too,” KU coach Charlie Weis said, trying to explain the night’s extremes.
Yes, the Jayhawks are 1-0 while they prepare to travel to Duke on Saturday. But considering the early wave, the final result was a little bit shocking. After a touchdown in the final minutes, Southeast Missouri was one onside kick away from having a chance to steal a win in front of 36,574 fans at Memorial Stadium.
“We just got to stop playing down to our opponent,” said KU linebacker Ben Heeney, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles.
So how do you define a successful opener, anyway? For four years, Kansas has been trying to find a suitable answer. Remember the stunning loss against North Dakota State in 2010? Or the sloppy victories over South Dakota State and South Dakota during Weis’ first two seasons? Even when the Jayhawks managed to outlast some small school that showed up for a check and a pat on the back, there was rarely anything stylish about it.
But for one quarter on Saturday, the Jayhawks were a juggernaut. Cozart was a dual-threat catalyst, hitting senior receiver Nick Harwell for two touchdown scores. The KU defense held Southeast Missouri State without a first down. Kansas piled up 24 points in the quarter — scoring on its first four possessions. And consider the following: Before Saturday, KU had scored more than 24 points just four times in Weis’ first two seasons in Lawrence.
As far as early impressions go, it was just about perfect for offensive coordinator John Reagan, who debuted his college-style spread offense inside the track-less confines of Memorial Stadium. Then came the second quarter and the second half — and a large dollop of reality. Maybe Kansas isn’t that close to major progress.
The KU offense managed just 13 yards in the second quarter, and the Jayhawks needed two interceptions from cornerback Dexter McDonald to snuff out a couple of Redhawks’ scoring chances.
“Once we got into the second quarter,” Weis said, “it didn’t seem like the same juice was there.”
Southeast Missouri also appeared to find a way to slow Cozart and KU’s passing attack in the second half. After completing eight of 11 passes during the first half, Cozart finished the night just 12 of 24 for 196 yards passing. He finished with three touchdown strikes — and made plenty of plays with his feet — but he struggled to connect on the deep ball, continually over-throwing his targets.
“Those are my fault,” Harwell said, taking some of the blame. “Montell put it where it’s supposed to be.”
Weis, meanwhile, placed some of the blame for the completion percentage on the play calls. In the second half, Southeast Missouri cut off some of KU’s underneath routes, and the Jayhawks took their chances deep. Weis praised Reagan’s offensive play-calling and the offensive output, but he added that the staff will need to find ways to get Cozart some easier completions.
In the end, Weis says, it comes down to a choice:
“Do you want to nickel and dime them,” he asked, “or do you want to take some shots for home runs?”
By the end of the night, Cozart appeared happy with his performance, if not a little frustrated with some aspects. But after getting his feet wet as a true freshman last season, Cozart thinks he’s capable of more.
“Sometimes you have to play against the zebras, too,” he said, pointing out contact on some deep passes that wasn’t called.
If nothing else, Cozart’s presence in the running game — including a gambit of option plays — appeared to help true freshman Corey Avery and juco transfer De’Andre Mann combine for more than 200 yards rushing in their Jayhawk debuts. Mann finished with 121 yards on 15 carries, while Avery had 92 yards and an early touchdown.
No, Cozart was not perfect, but he did look like a measured improvement over Weis’ recent line of transfer busts. Perhaps that was the positive from an uneven opening night. The Jayhawks showed a glimpse of their promise. They also showed three quarters of mediocrity.
“We were riding high,” Cozart said. “We just got to keep that going.”