KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas managed to forge an identity for itself through its first three games — all wins, surprisingly enough — as an offensive-minded team capable of putting up points without necessarily throwing the ball all over the field.
Kansas State has embraced the image of a physical, defense-first team that can barely score.
The rest of the Big 12 also is trying to find its identity as six teams play their first league games Saturday, including Iowa State with the eighth-ranked defense in the nation, TCU with the ninth-ranked offense and top-10 teams Oklahoma and Oklahoma State that have been brilliant on offense and shown some defensive chops as well.
“Tough. Resilient. Edgy. Hungry. Never satisfied. I think those would be the best,” first-year Sooners coach Brett Venables said when asked to describe his team. “I love the way we are developing, our leadership and our mindset. These guys are hungry, and they want you to coach them hard. When I say they are literally sitting on the edge of their seats in every meeting, I can’t say it any more clearly and truthful. And when we go to practice, it is the same thing.
“We still have a long way to go, but we are making steady improvement”
The biggest surprise in the Big 12 through the non-conference portion of the season was undoubtedly Kansas, and it’s not only because the Jayhawks are 3-0 for the first time in more than a decade. They’ve been dynamic on offense behind Jalon Daniels, who may be the most-impressive quarterback in the league so far.
The conference’s offensive player of the week following another big performance in a win at Houston, Daniels is doing what would get a player on a national title contender in the Heisman Trophy conversation. He accounted for 281 yards and five touchdowns in the 48-30 win over the Cougars. He is the Jayhawks’ leading rusher with 244 yards and passer with 566 yards.
“We have a lot of people who are able to make plays with the ball in their hands in our offense,” said Daniels, who fought for playing time a year ago but seized the starting job in fall camp. “I feel like (offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki) realizes that, so I feel like he does a great job of being able to put guys in situations to be able to get the ball.”
It’s not as if the Jayhawks beat up on soft competition to reach this point: They’re sitting atop the Big 12 by virtue of their overtime win at West Virginia and by knocking down future conference foe Houston, which was expected to be a mainstay in the top 25.
“It’s nice to see that our early start’s being recognized,” said Kansas coach Lance Leipold, whose team plays another 3-0 opponent in Duke on Saturday. “But shortly after that happens, you have to just keep your head down and focus on what you’ve got to get done and get better at.”
There’s plenty for the Jayhawks’ rival along Interstate 70 to get better at on offense.
On defense? Kansas State has been nearly dominant.
The Wildcats did not allow more than 17 points to any of their first three opponents, pitched one of the few shutouts in the opening weekend of college football and are allowing just 276 yards per game.
But not even that defensive unit was enough to save Kansas State against Tulane last weekend. Adrian Martinez once again struggled at quarterback and offensive coordinator Collin Klein made plenty of head-scratching calls, resulting in a 17-10 home loss that left the Wildcats feeling wounded heading to Oklahoma on Saturday.
Turns out establishing an identity doesn’t mean much if the team don’t win.
“Adversity has struck and it’s about how we are going to respond to that adversity — all of us, players, coaches — because we knew it was going to be a tough game,” Wildcats coach Chris Klieman said. “We knew that they were a good football team and we knew we had to play really well to beat these guys. We played hard but we did not execute well.”
Iowa State, another defensive-minded team allowing 234.3 yards per game, scratched together enough offense for a 3-0 start heading into its game against No. 17 Baylor on Saturday. And TCU was stunningly efficient through two contests under head coach Sonny Dykes, piling up 521.5 yards per game heading into its trip to SMU this weekend.
“We’re showing up ready to rock and roll,” Cyclones coach Matt Campbell said. “I feel from a physicality standpoint, from an attitude and effort standpoint — things that we have set as our cornerstones of who we want to be — I like where we are at.”