After Kansas’ season-opening loss to Nicholls State, there were valid questions about how the offensive line would perform the rest of the season.
Saturday’s result was obviously better. The Jayhawks ran for 216 yards and also 4.8 yards per carry, which was part of a 31-7 road victory over Central Michigan.
There’s more than one way to be successful, though. One might assume from the numbers above that KU’s linemen were overpowering, but the reality is, that doesn’t always have to be the case for a team to be effective.
And a we’ll see from analyzing running back Pooka Williams’ 20- and 41-yard touchdown runs, sometimes scheme, deception and solid execution — even from mostly non-O-linemen — can be enough to open things up for game-changing plays.
(For help with this story, I consulted a Division I assistant coach to get his thoughts.)
20-yard TD run, 10:13 left third quarter
The first touchdown comes on a draw play for KU with no run-pass option. We can tell this by the receivers’ actions after the snap, as instead of running routes, they immediately seek out defenders to block.
They do a great job with their assignments, especially Kerr Johnson and Kwamie Lassiter II, who lock onto Central Michigan’s outside linebackers to clear space on the second level.
Williams is able to get a few yards right away because of Central Michigan’s over-aggressiveness. Because KU’s offensive linemen are faking pass — popping up in pass-block stances — the Chippewas’ defensive linemen choose to race upfield in an effort to pressure quarterback Peyton Bender.
This makes the job of KU’s left tackle (Hakeem Adeniji), left guard (Api Mane) and right tackle (Kevin Feder) easy: They simply allow their men too far upfield.
KU’s other two linemen do a nice job. Right guard Larry Hughes gets position to turn his defender away from the run, while center Alex Fontana attempts a cut block on the middle linebacker, getting enough of him to slow his feet.
Lassiter’s block on CMU linebacker Alex Briones becomes important during the next few moments. Briones, instead of holding his ground, chooses to run to the outside in an attempt to tackle Williams on his own. Because of his late decision, safety Da’Quan Jamison ends up filling to the outside right behind Briones, making it so that Lassiter is essentially walling off two defenders.
Williams sees the open lane, using his speed to make it through a quickly closing gap. That gets him to the 5-yard line, where he’s able to muscle through a tackle before high-stepping into the end zone.
41-yard TD run, 8:58 left third quarter
There’s more nuance on this second touchdown run, even though the final result ends up being the same.
This is a run-pass option, as evidenced by KU’s receivers running routes. At the top of the screen, KU is running a version of the “stick” route formation.
In any case, both the pre-snap and post-snap reads are screaming for Bender to hand this ball off. For one, CMU has only five defenders in the box (Bender’s pre-snap read), which is a low number for a defense trying to stop the run.
Then, after the snap, Bender is looking at the outside linebacker Briones. If he crashes immediately to cover the run, Bender could pull the ball and throw it to Johnson, who should be open near the hash mark on the stick route behind him.
Briones’ first steps, though, are shuffles toward the sideline. KU has numbers in the running game. Time to hand it off.
Once again, CMU’s defensive linemen basically take themselves out of the play, working to get a pass rush before looking backwards helplessly as Williams runs by them. The left guard Mane does a good job of holding off his man when he tries to jump back into the A gap, while Fontana once again is effective on the second level, getting out to the middle linebacker to take him out of the play.
Two things get Williams the rest of the way. One is a ridiculous cut, as he sells the inside then breaks outside. Cornerback Brandon Brown doesn’t use great technique here — jumping around unnecessarily, then trying to tackle Williams high instead of low — but Williams still deserves credit for making the move to get by him to the sideline.
Receiver Steven Sims follows with a great individual effort of his own, hustling downfield to get a shoulder-led block into safety Devonni Reed to clear the way for Williams on the edge.
During the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday, KU’s David Beaty credited his receivers for four “scoring blocks” on the first touchdown, while Sims also received one on Williams’ 41-yard score.
“You simply can’t do it alone,” Beaty said. “The big runs always, always have scoring blocks by receivers downfield.”
And while Williams showed dynamic playmaking skills, he also was helped by some other factors too. There was clever playcalling and some good scouting, with KU’s coaches taking advantage of CMU’s defensive tendencies.
It all combined to result in these two plays — and also the end of a streak nearly a decade in the making.