By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
LAWRENCE, Kansas – No. 14 Texas (8-3 overall, 6-2 in Big 12 play) heads to the outskirts of Kansas City to square off against hapless Kansas (3-8 overall, 1-7 in Big 12 play) at 11 a.m. Friday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The Longhorns, winners of two games in a row, can earn a berth in the Big 12 Championship with a victory over the Jayhawks.
Here’s just about all you need to know about the game:
Players to watch
• Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has become the unquestioned leader of the Longhorns' offense. He 12 of 15 for 137 yards and a touchdown in the win over Iowa State while adding 32 yards and another score on the ground before re-injuring his right (throwing) shoulder on the next-to-last play of the second quarter and sitting out the second half. He continues to build on his school-record and Big 12 Conference 295 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, besting Major Applewhite’s previous school mark of 156 set in 1999.
• Junior wide receiver Collin Johnson returned from a knee injury that kept him out against Texas Tech, and caught three passes for 55 yards in the win over Iowa State. With every game Johnson is continuing his role as the go-to receiver that the Longhorns have been looking for. Johnson is the huge, intermediate target that the Texas needs to help open up the offense because the 6-foot-6 receiver can go over or through most of the defensive backs who cover him. He now has 53 receptions for 730 yards and five touchdowns combined in the first 11 games.
• Senior linebacker Gary Johnson, who came to Texas last year after playing in junior college, already has asserted himself as the Longhorns’ do-everything linebacker and be one of the team’s leaders. Johnson registered a team-high seven tackles and a sack that was a stop for a loss in the win over Iowa State. At 6-foot-0 and 230 pounds, Johnson might be a little undersized to be a constant run stuffer, but he plays bigger than his size and hits as hard as anyone in college football. Johnson will make some plays this season where he will come from the far side of the field to force a turnover.
• No player on the Longhorns has been harder to predict over the past three seasons than cornerback Kris Boyd, who continues his enigmatic play and actions 10 games into the 2018 campaign. Boyd has the skills to be a true shutdown corner — as long as he can keep his emotions in check. At 6-foot-0 and 195 pounds, he has the size to take on and stop most of the receivers who line up across from him. Boyd had five tackles, a tackle for a loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in the win over Iowa State. He has 49 stops, a sack, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, an interception, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and 14 pass breakups for the season.
Series history: Texas and Kansas meet for the 18th time Friday in Lawrence. Through the first 17 games in the series, Texas owns a 14-3 advantage. Friday’s matchup will be the 10th all-time at KU, where UT is 6-3 all-time. The Longhorns have won 14 of 15 matchups since the teams became Big 12 Conference foes, but lost in overtime the last time these two schools met in Lawrence.
Quote to note: “I would argue that we're overachievers at this point when you look throughout the landscape of our conference. We've got some pretty good players, but we've got a lot of guys that know how to play team football, and we're overachieving. That's the sign of progress is when your culture can take over and win some games. We've got some young talent that we're developing, so I'm excited about our progress.” — Texas coach Tom Herman, about the progress of his team.
Strategy and personnel
Key Matchup: The Texas defense versus the Kansas rushing attack. Jayhawks freshman running back Pooka Williams, Jr., produced 312 all-purpose yards last week against Oklahoma, setting a new Kansas single-game freshman rushing record with 252 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. Williams became KU's first player to produce a 1,000-yard rushing season since James Sims, in 2013 and has amassed 1,022 yards rushing. Conversely, Texas allowed Iowa State just 62 total yards on the ground in its win last week, so it should be up to the task.
• Wide receiver Collin Johnson has the size (6-foot-6, 215 pounds), athleticism and speed that the NFL loves, but he needs to be more aggressive. Herman has ordered his quarterbacks to throw the go route to Johnson each and every time he draws single coverage, and that strategy worked for a 22-yard touchdown in the loss to Maryland. He now has 53 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns in the first 11 games.
• Quarterback Sam Ehlinger now has attempted 295 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, surpassing Applewhite’s school record of 156 in 1999 and the Big 12 mark of 273 that was set by former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. Ehlinger is on the watch list for the 2018 Manning Award.
• Friday's game will be the Longhorns' first game on Thanksgiving (or the following Friday) played outside the state of Texas since 1934, when Texas played at Arkansas the Friday after Thanksgiving. It also will be the Longhorns’ first non-home game, or non-traditional matchup with Texas A&M, on Thanksgiving or the Friday after since the Longhorns played at Baylor on Thanksgiving in 1994.
• The injury report heading into the Kansas game is all very good for the Longhorns. “Injury-wise, obviously we’re pretty banged up, but nothing too serious,” Herman said. “(Defensive lineman) Chris Nelson has a knee contusion; he will be fine. (Defensive back) Kris Boyd, knee contusion. (Running back) Tre Watson's hip contusion is bothering him, but it should work itself out by the end of the week.”
• UT will finish the 2018 season with a record of 5-1 inside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The five wins are the most at home since the 2009 season for the Longhorns.
• After missing a combined 36 games along the offensive line in 2017, UT's starting offensive linemen have missed just three combined games so far in 2018.
• Backup quarterback Shane Buechele played the entire second half against Iowa State, going 10-for-10 passing for 89 yards and a touchdown.
A look at Kansas
• Kansas freshman running back Pooka Williams, Jr., has recorded touchdowns in three different ways: rushing, receiving and passing. He is one of 13 players in the FBS in 2018 to do so and is one of just three true freshman in Big 12 history to accomplish the feat.
• Kansas quarterback Peyton Benders is moving up in the KU record books, despite only having two seasons in Lawrence. Bender currently ranks ninth on KU's all-time passing chart with 3,344 yards. Additionally, Bender currently ranks second in the Big 12 (behind Ehlinger) for touchdown-to-interception ratio (6-to-1) for his efforts in 2018. Bender has completed 165-of-286 passes for 12 touchdowns, while throwing just two interceptions.
• A pair of Jayhawks are among the NCAA's active leaders on the defensive side of the ball as junior safety Mike Lee is the top current player in solo tackles per game (5.67), and senior linebacker Joe Dineen, Jr., ranks second among active players in total solo tackles (260) and third in solo tackles per game (5.42). Additionally, Dineen is the top active player among the Power 5 conferences in total tackles, with 363 in his career.
• Kansas has put together a plus-15 turnover margin through 11 games of the 2018 season, which ranks tied for third in the FBS. The Jayhawks' defense and special teams have combined to force their opponents into 25 turnovers, including six in consecutive wins over Central Michigan and Rutgers, after producing just nine turnovers by its opponents in all of 2017.
• In 2018, Kansas fields a team with 11 players who already have earned their undergraduate degrees. KU is one of 16 FBS schools with 11 or more graduates suiting up in 2018.