University of Kansas

After Duke loss, KU receivers hoping to spark passing attack

Kansas’ Nick Harwell (right) runs past Southeast Missouri State cornerback Justin Elias for a touchdown in the first quarter of the Sept. 6 game in Lawrence.
Kansas’ Nick Harwell (right) runs past Southeast Missouri State cornerback Justin Elias for a touchdown in the first quarter of the Sept. 6 game in Lawrence. AP

He follows a similar routine before each game, watching a few of his old highlights for good karma. It’s part visualization exercise, part confidence boost. It usually puts Nick Harwell in a good mood.

Over three seasons at Miami of Ohio, Harwell filled up those highlight videos and dominated the stat sheet. He recorded 97 catches in 2011. Racked up 17 touchdown receptions in 2011-2012. On one particularly memorable day against Central Michigan, Harwell finished with 11 catches for 215 yards.

“I kind of blacked out a little bit,” says Harwell, now a senior at Kansas.

So you might assume that last week’s loss at Duke was one frustrating afternoon. Harwell finished with just two catches for nine yards. And it wasn’t just the Duke defense, either. When Harwell did break open, KU sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart often just missed him.

“Montell shut down Harwell,” KU coach Charlie Weis said Tuesday. “Duke didn’t shut down Harwell.”

But one day later, Harwell made it clear. It’s up to Kansas’ veteran receiving corps to give some help to their young quarterback.

“We all got to play better,” Harwell said. “He might have missed some things, but we don’t fault him. And maybe I wasn’t as open as I thought.”

Cozart completed just 11 of 27 pass attempts for 89 yards at Duke. Weis called it a “bad day at the office.” And perhaps that’s what it was — a young quarterback going through growing pains on the road. That happens.

But for a Kansas program that has fielded some of the worst passing offenses in the country over the last two years, the performance signaled the continuation of a horrible trend. In the offseason, Weis hired Rice offensive coordinator John Reagan to install a spread offense, hoping to ignite a miserable passing attack. So far, the progress has been limited to a 24-point outburst against Southeast Missouri State in the season opener.

Now Harwell and the receivers will hope to get back on track against Central Michigan at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

“It’s only week three,” said senior playmaker Tony Pierson, who was limited to just two touches against Duke. “We still got plenty of weeks to show what we’ve been doing in the spring and summertime.”

While it’s still early, Saturday’s matchup is also Kansas’ last opportunity to build some momentum before beginning the Big 12 season with a home game against Texas next week. Gaze ahead at the schedule, and it’s difficult to find many possible victories. The context makes this perhaps the most crucial Saturday of Weis’ KU tenure. And in year three under Weis, the story has remained the same. If the Jayhawks can’t move the ball in the air, they will struggle to win.

“We feel like the offense plays best when it’s up-tempo,” Harwell said this week. “I felt like we could do more. We haven’t caught as many balls as we expected the last two games, but I feel like we can definitely produce more.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rustindodd.

Central Michigan at Kansas

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence

TV: Fox Sports KC

Other story lines

▪ THE EMPTY SEATS AT MEMORIAL STADIUM: In parts of three seasons, Kansas coach Charlie Weis is 2-21 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. But if there’s another number that could be crucial in determining Weis’ future, it’s the number of fans that remain invested in a losing program. Kansas announced an official attendance of 36,574 for the season opener against Southeast Missouri State. Memorial Stadium holds just more than 50,000. After last week’s loss at Duke, how many fans are still on board?

▪ THE WEATHER: The forecast is calling for a 50-percent chance of scattered thunderstorms around the area in the afternoon. That could mean the possibility of lightning delays. It could also mean wet conditions that make throwing the ball difficult. And that might not be a terrible thing for Kansas, which has managed to run the ball effectively against two opponents.

▪ HOW GOOD IS CENTRAL MICHIGAN? Two weeks ago, the Chippewas clobbered Purdue on the road. Last week, they suffered a 40-3 beating against Syracuse. The difference? Star running back Thomas Rawls was suspended for the Syracuse game after being charged in an alleged purse theft. Rawls is not expected to play on Saturday. Will Central Michigan still be able to run the ball?

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