For the better part of a decade, the Kansas Jayhawks have been a perennial “easy win” for the Big 12 and beyond. Until last week, Kansas hadn’t even beaten a Power Five team on the road in 48 straight games.
Upon arrival, new head coach Les Miles had his work cut out for him. How does a team go from getting called a “literal joke” by a columnist in Tulsa to turning heads across the country in less than a year? It all starts with the culture — or to be exact, the KUlture.
That word — “KUlture” — is on the wall in the press room, and it defines how Miles wants to not only run the Jayhawks football program, but change it.
“You look at KU basketball, and it’s like the Lakers,” said Sully Engels, a sports reporter from KSNT in Topeka, Kansas. “You know, they have all the media they want there, ESPN’s there every week — and they’re trying to turn the tide and get that to KU football as well, so you bring in a big time guy like Les Miles, he’s going to bring an extra set of eyes everywhere on you now.”
The Jayhawks opened their season by surviving a late comeback at home from Indiana State of the FCS. The next week, they hit the road and took a tough loss from Coastal Carolina, another FCS opponent, and it seemed like the “KUlture” hadn’t changed much.
That changed the next week, when Kansas followed the loss up with a dominating 48-24 victory against Boston College, snapping their 48-game losing streak against Power Five opponents on the road.
“It felt like in the past, things really snowballed. You have one of those tough [non-conference] losses, and [the season] is almost over,” Engels said. “Now, you get over a terrible loss, go on the road and have a huge win — I don’t know if a KU team a year ago, or five years ago, would have been capable of doing that. But that’s kind of Les Miles’s factor.”
The Jayhawk offense is built around a dynamic duo of running backs — senior Khalil Herbert and sophomore Pooka Williams, who combined for 308 rushing yards against Boston College. West Virginia has struggled to stop the two backs in recent years, most memorably allowing Herbert to rush for 291 yards in 2017.
This season, Miles has been putting both backs on the field to make it difficult for teams to build a game plan against. Whichever back you pick to defend, Engels says, will always be the “wrong answer.”
Kansas’s dynamic rushing attack is balanced by their passing attack, which is led by quarterback Carter Stanley. As the Jayhawks have had trouble finding a clear-cut starter for a full season, Stanley looks to bring much-needed stability to the signal caller position. After his 3 touchdown performance at Boston College, he’s shown that he’s ready for the task.
“Obviously, they want to run the ball, that’s where their bread and butter is, running and defense,” Engels added. “But if Stanley can avoid making mistakes, not turn the ball over, just play [consistently], and get it out to some really talented wideouts that they do have, that’s huge for the Jayhawks’ success.”
The heart and soul of this team, though, is on the other side of the ball. The Kansas defense is experienced and stout, and much of their players have spent their whole college careers experiencing the lows of Jayhawk football.
“This is the one core group for KU that really has been there, has done that, been through the ups and downs,” Engels said. “The first game of the season, they literally willed them to victory, and they’re not afraid to do that.”
Kansas’s defense sits in the bottom half of the Big 12 in nearly every statistical category, except for points allowed. If there’s anything to take away from their first three weeks of the season, it is to throw any and all numbers out the window because their biggest changes are intangible.
“People here in Lawrence really want to have a good football team,” Engels said. “Now they feel like they have the coach to do it, so it’s been up to the players to really embrace that, and they’re starting to do that.”