LAWRENCE — If there are any margins for error at rebuilding Kansas football, it’s a safe bet that they are of the razor-thin variety.
It’s a reality senior cornerback Hasan Defense not only acknowledges but stresses, particularly ahead of the biggest test in a season teetering on the brink.
“Every week we’re going to go into a battle knowing that someone might either be better than us or more talented than us in a one-on-one spot,” said Defense, speaking ahead of the Jayhawks’ 11 a.m. Saturday clash with No. 6 Oklahoma at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. “But that don’t mean you can’t win, you know what I’m saying?”
Fresh on the mind of Defense and the Jayhawks (2-3, 0-2 Big 12) is the program’s 51-14 defeat last Saturday at TCU, the first blowout loss suffered under first-year head coach Les Miles.
Too often in that contest, Defense said, the Horned Frog offense simply took advantage of one or two blown assignments — “I feel like just we didn’t win our matchups, and if we did win our matchups, we didn’t make the play we were supposed to make," he added, citing his own dropped interception early in the still scoreless affair as an example.
Similar mistakes could spell an even worse beat-down authored by the high-octane Sooners (4-0, 1-0), a 32½-point favorite Saturday.
OU enters Lawrence with the nation’s top offense in yards per game (647.7), sporting a lethal combination of the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing offense (288.7 yards per game) and its seventh-ranked passing attack (359). Like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray before him, former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has taken the Big 12 by storm, now third in the conference in both passing (323.8 yards per game) and rushing (110.8).
Defense is impressed with what OU’s done to this point — how could he not be? — though he argued all of the Sooners’ successes could be tied back to their head coach.
“Not taking anything away from them, they’re a great team with a lot of talent. But I feel like it’s all on Lincoln Riley,” Defense said. “Me personally, I feel like Lincoln Riley has a great system. I feel like he’s one of those coaches where there’s three, four plays inside of one play — he’ll have a screen going over here, a post going over here with the ball. His scheme has a lot going on. Most of the time when you see them (on tape) it’s receivers running free down the middle.
“Like I said, not taking anything from none of the talent they have, none of the receivers or whatever the case may be. But the majority of it is definitely Lincoln Riley and his scheme.”
To combat that, the Jayhawk defense is reaching into its own bag of tricks.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has installed a handful of new schemes this week at practice, concepts that junior linebacker Kyron Johnson said should help the team beyond just the OU contest.
“When you take a loss like that (last Saturday), I’m pretty sure everybody starts to — their mindset is very different from what it was when they went into the game they lost. The loss that we took at TCU, we took it very personally,” Johnson said. “So we as a defense, we’re stepping up and we’re actually dialing in into who we’re going against and actually how we’re doing things.”
Too often against TCU, Johnson said, KU defenders made matters worse by not simply staying in their own lane.
“We tried to do other peoples’ jobs, and once we started doing other peoples’, of course you’ll have good outcomes sometimes, but then after a while it will start to backfire on you,” Johnson said. “And then it just kept backfiring and backfiring.”
There is no bigger responsibility this week than keeping Hurts honest in the pocket, a task Defense and Johnson both said will take a team effort.
“We all know he has great running ability. Keeping him in the pocket is going to be big,” Defense said. “It’s going to be hard as far as just, we know he wants to escape. Even if there’s someone downfield, his legs are what keeps the team going, makes it another threat as far as what we have to deal with.
“So yeah, keeping him in the pocket is going to be big. Not saying we’re going to contain him, but we’re going to do a pretty damn good job.”
While Hurts will be at the forefront of the Jayhawks’ minds, it’d be difficult to blame the players if the adversity of the last week doesn’t join the quarterback somewhere in there.
KU on Wednesday officially announced the departure of senior running back and leading rusher Khalil Herbert, who missed last week’s game for what the team labeled “personal reasons.” Herbert will redshirt this year and transfer elsewhere in the offseason, though he said Thursday that his intention had been to return to KU next year until his decision brought about “unforeseen consequences.”
“There’s been a lot going on, just a shocking loss and a lot going on in-house,” Defense said. “I don’t really know much about it. I just know there’s a lot going on. Our goal is to focus on next week, being 1-0 every week. At the end of the day that’s our job. Our job is to do what we came here to do. We get a little check, a stipend. That’s what we came to do.
“At the end of the day we let people above us take care of what they need to take care of and we take care of what we need to take care of.”
Above everyone is Miles, who Defense said has handled the adversity with a steady hand and an eye on victory.
“He comes in, gets on our (butts) when he needs to. He comes in, congratulates us when he needs to,” Defense said. “Even though we haven’t had much to congratulate, he still gave us props when it was deserved. So I feel like he’s taking it on greatly. ...
“He’s telling us in every way that he’s not here to mess around, he’s not here to build to the future. He’s here to win, and that’s what he’s trying to do now.”
Miles’ counterpart Saturday has done a lot of that, winning at an 87.5% clip across his first two-plus seasons in charge of the Sooners. Just how long Riley will eschew a potential future in the NFL, however, remains a mystery, including to Defense, who shrugged when asked that very question.
“I don’t know,” Defense responded with a laugh. “It’s Big 12, so you know, he kind of gets away with stuff like that. You get in the league, it’s literally 11-on-11. So I feel like he’s going to be there soon. It’s exciting to watch him now. Hopefully he’ll stick around.”