Kansas football vs. South Dakota report card: Jayhawks' defense stars in first win since 2019

Jordan Guskey
Topeka Capital-Journal

LAWRENCE — Kansas earned its first victory since the 2019 season on Friday with a 17-14 win against South Dakota.

The Jayhawks had to mount a comeback at the end of the fourth quarter to do it. The slim lead they’d held on the Coyotes for much of the night was lost, which put the pressure on redshirt junior quarterback Jason Bean and the offense to deliver after their defense had been doing that the majority of the night. And deliver they did: Bean throwing his second touchdown pass of the night to redshirt freshman Lawrence Arnold with close to a minute remaining to put Kansas ahead for good.

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Here are the grades from the Jayhawks’ season-opening victory and the first win of the coach Lance Leipold era at Kansas:

Offense: Enough for a win, but so much room for improvement

Kansas redshirt freshman Lawrence Arnold is lifted up by teammates after scoring the final touchdown that put the Jayhawks ahead of South Dakota in the second half of Friday's game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

The two touchdown drives and field goal provided enough points for Kansas to come away with the win. The game-winning drive showed, despite how much the Jayhawks struggled to sustain drives at times, that Bean and company had the poise to be able to drive down the field as the clock kept ticking toward 0:00. But it was clear with this group that it needed more time before it’d be clicking at the level the coaches and players would have wanted.

First downs were often hard to come by, especially in third (5-of-16) and fourth (1-of-3) down situation. Bean was effective through the air for the most part, throwing for 163 yards while completing 17 of his 26 attempts, but he didn’t always find the open man. If not for Bean’s ability to create on the ground himself, Kansas’ running game would have struggled far more than it did and the Jayhawks still only gained 82 yards on 41 attempts overall.

Bean said after the game that he thought the offense performed better when it played with more tempo later in the contest. Maybe against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 10 that’s something Kansas might do more of to get the offensive line going. Twenty-one yards on 19 carries probably isn’t something that junior running back Velton Gardner anticipates seeing happen again, or Leipold or offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki see happening again.

Kansas also needs to see the health of its offensive line improve as it works to continue to implement its new system. Injuries limited both who was available at running back behind Gardner and, at times, who was blocking ahead of him, Bean and others. Bean’s athleticism will be a significant asset for the Jayhawks, as will be the ability of the skill players, but there’s only so much they can do if the offensive line doesn’t have a level of consistency.

The Coyotes managed one sack and nine tackles for loss.

Grade: C+

Defense: Outside of a few big plays, Jayhawks make things tough for the Coyotes

South Dakota redshirt freshman runningback Travis Theis celebrates with teammate junior offensive lineman Alex Jensen after scoring a touchdown during the second half of their game Friday against the Kansas Jayhawks. The Jayhawks won 17-14.

Kansas shut South Dakota out in the first half as the Jayhawks’ offense slowly began to find its way. Kansas defensive coordinator Brian Borland’s unit often held up on both third and fourth downs, limiting South Dakota to 3-of-13 and 0-of-3 marks in those areas, respectively. Led by talent like super-senior defensive end Kyron Johnson and junior safety Kenny Logan Jr., time and again the Jayhawks came up with meaningful plays that can set the tone for the 2021 season if they’re able to keep that momentum in the weeks to come.

There was Johnson’s sack and forced fumble at the end of the first quarter on a third down play, leading to one of a number of Coyotes punts that night. There was the final defensive play of the night for Kansas, when Johnson was at the forefront of the pressure on South Dakota’s quarterback and Logan broke up the pass that got out to stop the third and final fourth-down attempt the Coyotes would try. Johnson and Logan each finished with seven total tackles to tie with junior linebacker Gavin Potter for their team's lead.

Of course, there were moments when South Dakota broke through. The 25- and 29-yard touchdown runs Kansas allowed in the second half didn’t just put the game in jeopardy, they also made the Coyotes’ numbers in the running game look far more effective than they were. And while the Jayhawks did much more to pressure the passer than the stats show, there were times the secondary was lucky South Dakota didn’t connect on some passes that would have gone for big gains as well.

If the young secondary can continue to develop, helped along by the leadership of Logan and others, the defense has a bright future. It performed well against the pass against South Dakota. It’s just a matter of where things are when some of the more prolific offenses in the Big 12 Conference line up against Kansas.

Grade: B+

Special teams: Reliable and effective

Young Jayhawk fans hold up a sign encouraging new head coach Lance Leipold before the start of Friday's opening game against South Dakota.

A major advantage Kansas had in this one was redshirt sophomore kicker Jacob Borcila connected on his 30-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter, while South Dakota missed a 46-yard attempt earlier in the game. But how well the Jayhawks were able to do in this area isn’t just a product of Borcila’s make.

There wasn’t a kickoff by Kansas that didn’t keep South Dakota from starting anywhere better than the Coyotes’ own 25 yard line. While not every punt by Kansas pinned South Dakota back with tough field position, part of why some didn’t was because the ineffectiveness of the Jayhawks’ offense at times didn’t put the special teams unit in a position to do so. And there were still a couple punts that landed inside the 20 yard line and one that went longer than 50 yards.

Logan also had that 83-yard kickoff return and there weren’t any turnovers or miscues that handed the momentum over to South Dakota.

Grade: A

Coaching: Leipold and company got the win, and that’s what matters

Kansas coach Lance Leipold is greeted by his wife Kelly Leipold after defeating South Dakota 17-14 Friday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Field.

There were questionable decisions here and there, and the struggles offensively, but there was also a lot working against Kansas. The Jayhawks didn’t have the offseason/preseason a new head coach and his staff would have wanted. And there was a need to instill a level of belief in the team again, to overcome issues that stretch further back than just the losing streak Kansas was on.

So, while the Jayhawks nearly added another loss against a FCS program to the history books, that didn’t end up happening. Kansas remained engaged enough to get the final drive it needed offensively and the final drive it needed defensively. The game plans moving forward will just need to take into account what didn’t work against South Dakota, and understand what’s conceivable moving forward in terms of what improvements can be made week-to-week.

Grade: B-

Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at jmguskey@gannett.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.