MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s (5-6, 3-5 Big 12) quest for a second-straight bowl game appearance under head coach Neal Brown comes to a head Saturday evening against Kansas (2-9, 1-7 Big 12).
The Jayhawks, who were picked to finish last in the Big 12 at the start of the year, are in the conference basement, but have played noticeably better over the last two weeks.
“This last month in particular, we’ve really seen that type of progress out of coach [Lance] Leipold’s team,” said Brian Hanni, the ‘Voice of the Jayhawks’, when talking about some of the similarities he’s seeing between this current coaching regime and that of former coach Mark Mangino, who led Kansas to the Orange Bowl in 2007.
Two weeks ago, the Jayhawks knocked off the Texas Longhorns in Austin behind a balanced attack by running back Devin Neal (143 yds, 3 TD) and quarterback Jalon Daniels (202 pass yds, 4 total TD).
Daniels looked good once again against TCU last week, passing for 255 yards, as he has taken over the starting quarterback job.
“When they went into Austin in front of 100,000 fans, the stage was not too big, the lights were not too bright. He’s just got that bouncy swagger about him,” Hanni said when talking about the dual-threat QB. “There are things that he can do physically, too, that are very impressive. He’s not as fast to the edge as Jason Beam is with his feet, but he is elusive, he does have some great escapability.”
He added: “We really feel like we’ve found our quarterback of the future in Jalon Daniels.”
The sophomore took over for former starter Jason Beam who, after healing from an arm injury, may be returning to the field in a different role — running back.
“Get — if not our fastest — one of our fastest players on the field,” Leipold told reporters earlier this week.
No matter who’s been under center, Kwamie Lassiter II has been the top target on the outside. Lassiter has caught 52 passes for 608 yards and three touchdowns this season. His 52 catches are the sixth-most in the Big 12.
Two other Jayhawks receivers have logged multiple touchdown catches as well.
It’s possible the biggest key for this Jayhawks against West Virginia is to get off to a fast start, according to Hanni.
Kansas’ season has had its ups and downs.
The Jayhawks have two wins by a combined four points. Two of their losses came by a combined eleven points — an eight-point defeat against then-No. 3 Oklahoma, and a three-point loss last week against TCU. Every other game, however, has been decided by at least 19 points, and three of Kansas’ losses have come by 38 points or more.
Junior safety Kenny Logan Jr. leads the way for the Jayhawks on defense. Logan Jr. has recorded 96 total tackles this year, which is tied for the most in the Big 12. He has also recovered a pair of fumbles.
“He was kind of a key lynch pin in what this season was going to become when the coaching change happened in March and April,” Hanni said of the team’s star defensive back. “Kenny Logan was the first guy to say, ‘You know what, I may be a Les Miles recruit, but I believe in coach Leipold. I’m going to stay. I’m going to stick it out.'”
Meanwhile, Kyron Johnson has easily been Leipold’s best weapon at getting into the opposing backfield. The senior defensive end has 8.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, both of which are far and away the best numbers for Kansas.
As a team, the Jayhawks rank last in the Big 12 with just 13 sacks this year.
One example of Kansas’ recent strides is its production in the red zone.
Prior to the win over the Longhorns, the Jayhawks scored a touchdown on just over half of their trips to the red zone. But after going 7-for-7 against Texas and 3-for-3 against the Horned Frogs, the Jayhawks have now put seven points on the board in 68 percent of their possessions that traveled inside the opposing 20 yard-line.
But while things on offense have been going well, problems still persist on the defensive end. Kansas has been outgained by more than 100 yards in each of the last three games.
This is a Jayhawks team that hasn’t played winning football for much of the year, but has been making strides over the last few weeks, and is hoping to keep its momentum going against the Mountaineers.
Catch the full interview with Brian Hanni, the ‘Voice of the Jayhawks,’ on Saturday’s live edition of Mountaineer GameDay, airing at 10 a.m. ET on West Virginia Nexstar stations and 11 a.m. ET on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.